Washington — Taylor Branch and John V. Lombardi are both respected historians who once shared the same ZIP code in Baltimore. But that’s where their similarities appear to end.
Last night Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who in the past year has leveled some of the harshest criticism against the NCAA, squared off against Lombardi, a professor of history and former president of the Louisiana State University system who largely defended the NCAA.
Their debate, which was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan think tank here, was one of the more interesting ones I’ve heard on NCAA amateurism.
“College athletes are not slaves,” he wrote in The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, a Byliner Originals e-book published last year. “Yet to survey the scene … is to catch the unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
On Tuesday he continued to hammer away at the NCAA’s “unbalanced” structure that he says hurts the very people it should be set up to benefit.
“Students have no stake in their own enterprise, they have no voice, they can’t vote,” he told the crowd of a few dozen people gathered in a conference room a mile or so from the White House. More important, he argued, elite players deserve to be compensated for their 40 to 60 hours a week of unpaid labor.
“Imagine telling a student they couldn’t start a small business to pay their way through college. Or they can’t start Facebook,” he said. “We would never dream of applying the same rules to those students.”
Instead of directly distributing part of the $700-million-plus in revenue it receives from its men’s basketball tournament to college athletes, Branch said, the NCAA chooses to “keep the money among the adults, hire more strength and conditioning coaches, and have the gall to say we do it for [athletes'] own good. It’s un-American.”
Lombardi—who has held top leadership posts at the University of Florida, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Johns Hopkins University—argued that athletes receive indirect compensation for their contributions, in some cases more than $100,000, to play the sports they love.
“It’s not so easy to say student-athletes are discriminated against. Are we supposed to feel sorry for people who get full scholarships, and all the training and health support and education support we provide?” he said. “Most students in my classes would love to have that deal.”
He also stood up to Branch and his idea that the NCAA is a cartel: “If it was a cartel, surely it would be the worst cartel in America because 90 to 95 percent of collegiate sports programs lose money.”
Lombardi doesn’t entirely toe the NCAA line. For example, he thinks athletes should be allowed to turn professional whenever they want. “Why restrict it, why slow it down?” he asked. “Why is it our business to interfere in that business? Explore and go out and be the best you can be.”
From his decades in the game, he also knows that the concept of amateurism is a thorny one. “It’s true it’s a big struggle to maintain amateurism because everybody wants to make a buck off these big-time student-athletes,” he said. “The trouble is, big-time athletes are only a tiny fraction of our franchise—maybe 150 [football players] get drafted out of 430,000 student-athletes.”
To help do away with what some see as the charade of the student-athlete in some programs, Lombardi would favor establishing a minor-league football circuit.
“I’d be all for making a minor league in football and sending [athletes] all over there, but football’s not interested in that,” he said. Instead, NCAA colleges have created a “franchise” system for more than 1,000 institutions that attempts to create a level playing field while allowing the big money from football and basketball to support the dozens of sports that don’t bring in revenue.
Yet in discussing whether the biggest athletic departments might one day secede from the NCAA, he scoffed at the idea.
“There’s no question the SEC tomorrow could decide we’re going to run our own NCAA. Why not?” he said. “Big-time programs know when they split off, they become a minor league, and everyone knows the minor league sucks. It is bad stuff.
“You pay people a little more but it sucks,” he added. “Why aren’t there people out there watching arena football? They don’t.”