Perhaps the greatest irony in the week's Penny Press also cropped up in The Atlantic, where historian Taylor Branch responds to some of the many reader opinions generated by his recent article about college athletics. In that article, Branch outlines the enormous amounts of money colleges make off their 'amateur' players, who are technically student-athletes and who don't get paid. Certainly there are iniquities in that system, but Branch chose to underscore them in an untenable way: by reviving the old college-athletes-as-slaves argument and hammering on it.
Such a gambit raised a few hackles, most certainly including my own, and in this latest issue, Branch responds:
Let me respond to Steve Donoghue on the slavery analogy. He is one of many readers who find it extreme and inaccurate, but I stand by the comparison because I think it illuminates patterns of thought. My analogy was qualified, of course. College athletes are not literally slaves. However, they have in common the fact that immense wealth has been create from their skilled, diligent labor, in such a way that denies them the full rights of American citizenship.
... Anyone who wonders how slavery survived so long would do well to ponder the NCAA. It rests on fiat an inertia. People shy away from considering its basic justification, because there is none. Similarly, people once despised the abolitionists, not in defense of slavery in principle, but precisely because they were upset that the abolitionists were right.
My grandmother would have said "Stop digging before you bury yourself." First, you can't stand by a comparison that's flawed not at its fringes but at its heart, any more than you can qualify an analogy by vitiating its central tenet. College athletes aren't denied any "rights" as American citizens that all other college students aren't also denied; the "rights" to which Branch is alluding have been specifically abrogated by the athletes themselves, when they entered their colleges and Big Ten universities with their eyes wide open. Those athletes don't get nothing in exchange for their physical skills - and they get a whole hell of a lot more than the slaves in Branch's analogy did: not just food and shelter, but a free ride at their school (often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that non-ball-bouncing students actually have to pay) - a degree from Yale or Brown or Stanford. Yes, the schools exploit the popularity of college athletics to generate money off the 'diligent' work of these athletes, but the 'pattern of thought' illustrated is greed, not ownership. And there's plenty of greed to go around; as I pointed out in that earlier post, the entire superstructure about which Branch achieves such moral indignation is built on the greed of its student athletes and their parents. And their greed would be utterly unrecognizable to the slaves in Branch's analogy - they're hungry not to be free but to be multi-millionaires in four years or less. They know that they're not allowed to demand a multi-million salary while they're students - they voluntarily become students anyway, to play the long odds for those multi-millions the instant they graduate. There is no part of that reality which compares in any way with slavery, a system whose inhabitants entered into it involuntarily, with no hope of freedom, much less mind-staggering wealth. What Branch should have written this time around was "Look, the more I researched the iniquities and inequalities of college sports, the more hot under the collar I got, and in rage I wrote those slavery-comparison bits, but I see now I went too far."
And even such a backtrack wouldn't explain that second quoted paragraph! People despised abolitionists because they hated the fact that abolitionists were right? As with the slavery analogy, so too here: it's almost possible to forget that the writer of this nonsense is in fact one of the greatest historians America has ever produced, author of the incredible America in the King Years trilogy that should be required reading at every college and university in the country (this is, of course, the deeper irony). I know he must know this, but after reading that second quoted paragraph, I feel compelled to point it out anyway: Racists hated abolitionists because they thought those abolitionists were "nigger-lovers" - most certainly NOT because they secretly knew slavery was wrong. Slavery in America flourished because bigots actively used the Bible and majority tyranny to enforce it - not because of some self-loathing Freudian contortion.
I've almost never read such a statement from a working professional, and I can't account for it. We're all entitled to our occasional howlers, but yeesh - to put it mildly, William Lloyd Garrison would have been amazed to learn that the mobs screaming for his blood were actually agreeing with him ...