… the much-discussed Taylor Branch article about paying college athletes (background here):


Branch makes a compelling case, using a sixties-era civil rights lens, for compensating college athletes. But he seems to misunderstand the dynamics of the actual financial relationship between big-time college sports and the universities that sponsor them. As a result, his argument is incomplete at best.

By his account, big time sports are a tremendous financial boon to universities. Universities under this view end up addicted to the subsidy flowing out of athletics into academics, producing a host of bad effects. It is undeniably true that big money flows to some universities, that it ends up being spent, and that in the process of being spent it generates among those who receive it the kind of self-protective habits and behaviors that a flow of money always does.

What is far less clear is whether the net effect on the university bottom line is positive. Big winners there may be within the university, but seldom is it the case that they reside on the academic side. Most credible studies suggest that, but for a very few net winners, big time sports from a university financial perspective overall is a sucker’s bet.

The addiction of universities to big-time sports, then, is less a function of a corrupting subsidy to academics than it is the politics of the thing: the donors who prefer to give to the sports program even if their gifts result in an increase in financial pressure on the university, lawmakers with influence on the budget who think first about athletics and only in passing about academics, a public that demands spectacle and a press that is generally happy to stoke that desire. The net result is that in most cases the subsidy flow runs in the opposite direction, toward the already pampered and overfunded athletic program.

This has corrupting influences of its own, including an unwillingness to admit to the subsidy or to make clear its depth. Universities have shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to do much about these forces, even if they might like to. Under the circumstances, with universities lacking backbone even in the current situation, adding athlete compensation to the cost base would have the inevitable effect of forcing tongue-tied universities to up their subsidy even more, no doubt fudging the numbers in the process.

So pay student athletes if it seems just to you. But find some way first to divorce the entire mess from universities. To borrow a term from another sixties-era civil rights tradition, universities need big-time sports like a fish needs a bicycle.

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3 Responses to “A UD Reader Sends Her a Response to…”

  1. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    What em said.

  2. Taylor Branch Says:

    Big universities are addicted to sports money, but not because it helps the academic budget. Nearly all athletic departments have such enormous expenses that they run deficits, not surpluses, covered partly by involuntary student fees. I quoted unversity presidents saying forthrightly that sports are an unsustainable obsession at the expense of academics.

    We are the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports in higher education. You seek to divorce sports from academics to preserve the latter. The two may well be incompatible, but we have not yet even begun an honest debate on that question because the NCAA has reform efforts mesmerized by phony issues of amateurism.

  3. superdestroyer Says:

    That is not what Mr. Branch said during an interview on the Steve Craben show on Yahoo Sports Radio. Mr. Taylor repeated the statement that athletes should be paid because they make money for the university. Of course, Mr. Branch, in the interview, did not say how students should be paid.

    However, in the Atlantic article, Mr. Branch had the idea that students should be able to generate their own income. In Mr. Branch’s world, every football player at Auburn would have an endorsement deal but players at Troy would have to pay the university to be on the team.

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