Naturally, I was as outraged as anybody else by the long litany of greed and corruption detailed in Taylor Branch's Atlantic cover story "The Shame of College Sports," but I was equally irritated by the never-pretty sight of a heavyweight professional historian getting carried away with himself in the bright spotlight of one of the nation's greatest magazines.
The problem isn't Branch's writing, which is top-notch as always, nor his research, which is depressingly thorough and damning. The problem is the central conceit he appears gravitationally drawn to:
Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not 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.
Yes indeed, slavery analogies should be used carefully - and Branch doesn't do that. The first step to 'carefully' would be 'sparingly,' but the whole college-athlete-as-slave motif shows up six times in this article. And even the repetition would be excusable if the idea itself were warranted, but it's not. What it is, of course, is a gross historical insult.
Coaches may be oblivious or worse (and I know from worse; I had an up-close ring-side seat for the height of Hayden Fry's reign over the University of Iowa); recruiters may be unscrupulous; school administrators may be complicit and greedy ... but college athletes are still there voluntarily, and the last time I checked, the most central defining aspect of slavery is that it's involuntary. And the slaves who are there involuntarily dream of their freedom - not of eventually owning the plantation: Branch's simplistic moral geometry omits one of the central forces driving the whole shoddy, money-grubbing apparatus that is college sports today - the players themselves.
Those players - the stars among them most of all - aren't bought in Ghana and shipped to East Lansing. Their parents and coaches and recruiters might dream of endorsements and trophies and money, but the players themselves have dreams too - of endorsements and trophies and just mountains and mountains of money. Branch comes to what he styles as an inevitable moral conclusion - that these college players should be paid something for playing, especially considering how much the colleges are gaining from having them around. But colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer science lab who's going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn't expect to be paid while he's on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate - franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post-high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.
Fortunately, as always with The Atlantic there are compensations. There's the mighty Ben Schwarz, for instance, this time writing a perfectly-constructed brief appreciation of the problematically unfriendly American writer Ambrose Bierce, or the always-great B. R. Myers, this time writing about, of all things, Australian crime-fiction and getting in several shots at the often distressingly minimal writing of the modern murder-thriller:
"I'll bet you don't skip dialogue," Elmore Leonard says. I'll bet you don't buy books for it, either. If the novel is to survive in this distracted digital age, it must do more, not less, of what only the novel can do.
That (plus his priceless quip that crime fiction is "largely a matter of people answering doorbells") can restore so much of what the put-upon reader needs - especially after that cover, showing an athletic black arm branded by the NCAAP. I realize cover-designers are trying to get people talking, but still ...