INDENTURED: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE REBELLION AGAINST THE NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss

In 2011 the Pulitzer Prize Winning historian Taylor Branch wrote an article for THE ATLANTIC entitled “The Shame of College Sports” that finally blew the lid off of the NCAA reign of terror of “student-athletes.”  In it, Branch noted that the majority of athletes that played football and men’s basketball were African American.  Further, he noted that the NCAA lets off “the unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”  Coming at the same time as a PBS Frontline episode “Money and March Madness” the NCAA’s reputation suffered greatly and they were forced to answer to the public for a great number of their policies that the article and television program exposed.  The NCAA practices and their rationalization for their numerous rules are exposed further in Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss’ new book INDENTURED: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE REBELLION AGAINST THE NCAA.  The authors’ approach is damning to the decades long reign of the NCAA as they describe the enforcement of rules and regulations with seeming blindness to the effects they have on the athletes and their families that they are expected to regulate.  Nocera and Strauss discuss the different heads of the NCAA and what emerges is a consistent refusal to reform and change policies that were drawn up in the 1950s that have destroyed numerous lives.  The authors trace the development of the NCAA from its beginnings to the era of mega revenues that have economists, politicians, educators, sportswriters, legal scholars, and numerous others referring to it as a cartel that has spent most of its time ruling college sports, but at the same time being exempt from anti-trust legislation.

The book itself could serve as a legal brief against the NCAA as it delineates numerous practices that are detrimental to the athletes they supposedly supervise.  The book is organized into a series of chapters that examine a specific problem with the NCAA.  Each chapter is preceded by a short rendering of a particular case that the NCAA pushed against a particular athlete, their families, or a coach and how they ruled unjustly, and at times unethically.  At issue throughout the narrative is the concept of the “student-athlete” that the NCAA created to justify its actions.  The core of the argument against the NCAA rests on a number of areas.  The lack of health insurance for athletes, particularly when they are expected to train during the off-season and suffer injuries which can cause them to lose their scholarships.  Another area is the practice of having to renew their scholarships each year and how coaches manipulate this practice to gain more scholarships for recruits.  The lack of stipends to assist students who have little or no money for laundry, food outside the cafeteria, and assist them with supplies needed for class is a major issue when university programs are reaping millions of dollars because of the athletes, but the athlete themselves receiving nothing from their labor.   The labor of which is roughly 40 hours a week or more for individuals who play Division I sports of which I am personally knowledgeable since my son played Lacrosse at that level and he did most of his class work after midnight.  The lack of academic support for college players is a travesty, for example, some coaches would hold back the distribution of textbooks until they were satisfied with on field performance.   Lastly, probably the most egregious actions by the NCAA is that their investigative process is dominated by fear.  Since they do not have subpoena power they will use any method to gain information, a process that allows them to bribe people for testimony, accept the statements of witnesses who are stretching the truth to achieve their goal of prosecuting a particular athlete, among other strategies to make athletes ineligible.  Athletes seemed to always make the mistake of assuming that their schools would support them when the NCAA investigated, a major error, as all the schools cared about was their own welfare.

(University of Michigan Stadium on a Fall Saturday afternoon, capacity 102,000)

The authors provide all the relevant statistics to support their conclusions.  College sports generates about $13 billion a year, more than the National Football League.  Though there are 460,000 NCAA athletes engaged in 24 sports, the book focuses in on about 15,000 who play the most revenue driven sports, football and men’s basketball.  While the NCAA uses their self-serving definition of amateurism to reinforce and justify their policies, the amount of money they bring in because of these supposed “amateurs” makes one accept the idea that these athletes are indentured servants.  The historical definition of an indentured servant is “a person under contract to another person for a definite period of time, usually without pay.”  As used historically that person is working for passage to another country or maintenance.  In the case of the NCAA, athletes seem to be indentured servants, but they are not being maintained properly if they are not provided full health care and food.

Based on the article by Taylor Branch there is a racial component to this process.  A large majority of athletes come from poor black families who live close or under the poverty line.  Many of these athletes need remedial education which most universities do not provide, but what they do provide as is evidenced by the University of North Carolina African American history program are “caned” courses where students did not have to attend classes but received passing grades.  This went on under the rule of Coach Dean Smith, regarded as a deity in Chapel Hill and of course was white.  If we turn to the UCLA basketball program under John Wooden, considered a “basketball god” as he earned 11 national basketball titles between 1965 and 1975 overseeing numerous infractions, (i.e.; builder Sam Gilbert was paying his players), that the NCAA let slide because he brought in money, and yes he too was white.  The stories Nocera and Strauss bring to the fore are mostly black athletes who seem to be persecuted by the NCAA.

The growth of revenue at such an exponential level is amazing to this reader.  It all relates to the commercialization and corporatization of college sports.  The creation of ESPN in 1975 and its later offshoot channels, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic created the need for more and more programming, roughly 8000-10,000 hours a year.   Billion dollar contracts have followed over the years and universities rebelled against the NCAA as they believed they could make more money.  Their individual conferences, beginning with the Big 10 decided to create their own networks and negotiate with ESPN, the major networks, and the new sports channels themselves to get a bigger share of the pie.  Once the Big 10 was successful then other conferences like the PAC 10, ACC, SEC and others, did the same.  The result has been musical chairs for universities as the conferences lured schools with the promise of increased revenues to the detriment of schools with weaker athletic programs who could no longer compete for the funds needed to keep up with the new arenas, stadiums, and other facilities of the larger newly realigned programs.   It is obvious that college sports has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise with March Madness, the BCS playoff system for college football, as well as all the other bowls that have corporate sponsors.   My favorites include the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and the Go Daddy Bowl, and I wonder in the future if the NCAA will offer a Kohler Toilet Bowl.

(Theodis Colter, Northwestern University Quarterback and college player’s union advocate)

Aside from the commercialization off college sports, the next motivator for athletes to try and be heard was the proliferation of concussions that have led to CTE in former players.  College football’s “concussion protocol” was non-existent and finally Northwestern Quarterback Theodis Colter began a movement to unionize Northwestern football players with the creation of the college Athletics Players Association.  The organizing of college basketball and football players had been burgeoning for a number of years due to the inequities already discussed, but it seemed that the concussion issue pushed some over the edge.  After the National Labor Relations Board recognized the players right to unionize a vote took place in April, 2014 to approve the unionization of Northwestern players.  After tremendous pressure from alumni and a calculated effort by the Northwestern administration to convince players what they could lose if they voted yes, the players voted down the union concept.

(Ed O’Bannon, former UCLA basketball player who led the fight to renumerate college players for their own “images.”)

One of the most interesting cases involves whether the “image” of an athlete can be used as a commercial product after the athlete graduates (and is enrolled) since that image generates millions of dollars from the likes of EA Sports and other corporations.  Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player has sued the NCAA and the authors delve into the legal fight and the nuances and strategies pursued by both sides of this case as they do with a number of other cases throughout the book.  The O’Bannon case is extremely important because it finally showed that their business model of “amateurism” was no longer tenable. It must be asked why college book stores that sell the jerseys of players, and make enormous sums of money, do not share their profits with the athletes who wears the jerseys that make sales possible.  As the O’Bannon case court hearings evolved, Nocera and Strauss reintroduce a number of characters that have been discussed throughout the book.  Men like James Delaney, head of the Big 10, Sandy Vaccaro, a major figure at Nike at one time, Jerry Tarkanian, former head basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Andy Schwarz, an economist, Ramogi Huma, a former player and activist for player rights, Mark Emmert, head of the NCAA, and the work of Walter Byers who developed many NCAA rules and regulations among numerous others.  The Final decision in the case struck down the NCAA concept of “amateurism” and promoted reforms for the benefit of the players, many of which the NCAA supported, but this did not stop the NCAA from appealing the decision even though they could remain a cartel whose prerogatives were only tweaked.  But the NCAA and its member schools began tripping over themselves as they tried to institute reforms to benefit the players and as the author’s argue in their closing chapter, “the sky did not fall,” even as the cost to universities for health care, guaranteeing scholarships, and a cost of attendance stipend increased. In reality, revenues for college sports “kept rolling in” to cover these new benefits, in addition to producing further revenues above these new expenses.

(Ed Delaney, former head of the Big 10 Conference)

If an athlete sought to try and get legal redress it was very difficult as the NCAA would rarely settle a lawsuit and its strategy rested on legal obstacles dragging cases out for years.  Since they had the greater resources, few would challenge them.  The key to any reform is for university presidents to grab control of college sports from their athletic directors.  However in a system where some athletic programs, i.e.; Louisiana State University brings in 25% of the schools revenue, school presidents are not likely to push too hard.  The bottom line that emerges from Nocera and Strauss’ excellent research is that “student-athletes” do not control their own lives while they are indentured as college athletes.  If the reader wants to delve further into the debate they include an appendix that present documents that are germane to the material presented in this very readable book.

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