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It's About Time We Pay College Athletes and Get Them Off the NCAA's Plantation

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Texas schools earn a couple of mentions in Taylor Branch's explosive article "The Shame of College Sports" in the current Atlantic Monthly.

Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-wining civil rights movement historian, piles shame upon shame in calling for an end to the ludicrous fraud of amateur athletics in America's colleges and universities. He cites the work of sports economist Andrew Zimbalist to show that the very concept of a "student-athlete" playing as a volunteer to improve his or her mind and body, rather than as an employee, was a legal dodge in the first place. The universities wanted to foil claims by paralyzed athletes seeking workman's compensation.

One of the most egregious examples involved Texas Christian University. After running back Kent Waldrep was paralyzed in a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 26, 1974, TCU paid his medical bills for nine months, then cut him loose. Well, you know, the Lord had to take away Adam's scholarship, too.

Throughout the 1990s Waldrep sued TCU for workman's comp. In June 2000 an appeals court finally tossed his suit after TCU officials testified under oath they had recruited Waldrep as a student, not to play football for them.

In the Atlantic article, Branch offers many stomach-turning instances of bold-faced dishonesty by colleges and universities to preserve the legal fiction that college sports is not a hugely profitable business enterprise built on the backs of heavily recruited but unpaid star performers.

The second mention of a Texas school cuts a bit the other way. Branch argues that the NCAA has lost any will whatsoever to impose true discipline on its member schools for fear the schools may start running their own playoffs and keep the TV money to themselves. That would threaten the NCAA's billion-dollar profits and a life of private jets, opulent headquarters and star treatment that the money buys for the organization.

Branch also brings up what happened to Southern Methodist University in 1987, when its football program received the dreaded NCAA "death penalty" sanction for recruiting violations. In the current atmosphere, the violations that brought SMU low and left a lifelong stain on the legacy of former Governor Bill Clements, chairman of the school's board during the scandal, probably would earn it a slap on the wrist, Branch suggests.

He wants to see college athletes freed up to bargain collectively or solo for the best compensation deals they can get. In the current set-up, mainly black kids make huge profits for mainly white people and then get the back of the hand if they slip up or even lose momentum.

Branch says college athletes are not quite slaves, "Yet to survey the scene -- corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as 'student-athletes' deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution -- is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation."

I think he's right about that. The problem is, that's the whiff the alumni like best.

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