Tommy Craggs is a former editor of Deadspin.
The long-running fight between the NCAA and its critics has been, among other things, a fight over metaphors. Is the governing body of college sports like the Mafia, as a member of Congress once suggested, calling the NCAA one of the “most vicious, most ruthless organizations” ever devised? Is it a colonial arrangement, whereby an unctuous paternalism is deployed in service of systematized plunder? Is it Jim Crow by another name, as the crusading former sneaker exec Sonny Vaccaro once suggested? Or was civil rights historian Taylor Branch closer to the mark when he wrote that the NCAA carries “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation”?
This isn’t merely a matter of rhetorical niceties. For years, the NCAA has operated in one American blind spot or another, and it has been the slow-going project of reformers to make people see the organization for what it really is. “Indentured,” by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss, both of whom write for the New York Times, is the story of that project, of its thumping successes in recent years and of its losses, too. It’s a companion piece to Branch’s blockbuster Atlantic Monthly article from 2011, which brought moral urgency to a cause that in most formal venues was being pressed in the dry proceduralese of antitrust litigation. If Branch’s story was a brick thrown through the NCAA’s window, “Indentured” is all the theses nailed to its door. The book’s only failure is that it seems not to realize, in all its understandable triumphalism, that the story being told between its lines is ultimately a gloomier one about the resilience of the status quo.
The case against the NCAA and its model of amateur sports is easily made, thanks in part to the ground cleared by writers like Nocera, who first took on the governing body in a series of owlish and angry columns. “Indentured” is blunt in its characterization: The NCAA is a hypercommercialized multibillion-dollar cartel that suppresses the wages of its workers in the name of saving them from commercial exploitation. The issue is often framed in the media as a question of whether athletes should be paid, but in fact there is little debate on that point. As NCAA loyalists never tire of pointing out, athletes already get paid, in the form of scholarships and cost-of-attendance stipends. The dead-enders aren’t wrong, but in mounting this argument they concede more than they realize. Once we’ve agreed on the principle of compensating these particular workers for their efforts, the only questions left are how and how much.
That’s where the real debate lies. It’s about the essential justice of a system in which college athletes are paid in scrip on the paternalistic grounds that the NCAA knows what’s best for them, even while they generate money well beyond the value of their scholarships. It’s a system in which that surplus value flows into the salaries of coaches and athletic directors, into the gilded corners of training facilities, into the very enforcement arm that punishes the athletes for seeking, under the table, something closer to their theoretical value on the market.
The titular metaphor of “Indentured” comes from an incisive paper written by Andy Schwarz and Jason Belzer that is reprinted in the book as an appendix. Modern-day college athletes, with their fixed-term contracts, work under a paradigm “eerily similar” to the colonial system of indentured servitude, Schwarz and Belzer write, citing the “low prospects of turning professional in their sports after their college careers are over and a system in which a good deal of their value is transferred to others.” More significant are the differences — above all the fact that indentureds participated in a competitive market that gave them a measure of bargaining power that college athletes lack entirely: “As the history of indentured servants has shown, with economic competition there is economic justice, even for those choosing short-term bondage,” the paper concludes. “As the history of sports such as baseball and college athletics has shown, without economic competition, there is not.”
Schwarz is one of the heroes of “Indentured,” a member of a loose confederation of insiders and outsiders that is responsible for the legal and intellectual architecture of the case against the NCAA. The soul of the movement, and of this book, belongs to Vaccaro, the man who introduced the sneaker industry to college sports only to commit himself later to blowing up the monster he helped create. These reformers have attacked the NCAA model from all points of the compass. Most prominently, there was former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit over the use of player likenesses in NCAA-licensed video games. “Indentured” is brilliant about situating these recent developments within the broader context of the explosion of television money across college sports which occasioned — to borrow an old Marxist phrase — a great heightening of the contradictions in the system. Reform of some kind was inevitable.
But what kind? The book bills itself as the story of the “Rebellion Against the NCAA,” but there’s another conflict here, unfolding seemingly behind the authors’ backs, whose resolution has already determined the limits of any reform push. In a 2014 essay on Deadspin, which I used to edit, Schwarz teased apart the two different models of NCAA criticism. He called them Team Reform and Team Market.
Team Reform says that “the NCAA is too commercial, too much like other professional sports, and that college sports would be better off if they were run closer to the way club sports run,” Schwarz wrote. Team Reform believes that big-time athletics can be subordinated to an academic mission. While it purports to criticize the NCAA, Team Reform ultimately flatters the paternalistic myths at the heart of the organization — especially the notion that these young men and women should be playing their sports for glory and alma mater and nothing else. Team Reform, from the heart of the corporatized American academy, asks politely that the horses be returned to the barn.
Team Market, meanwhile, says that “the NCAA should be as commercial as the market wants . . . but that in that effort it cannot deny its athletes access to the same market system of compensation that every other participant in the enterprise enjoys.” Team Market thinks college athletes have a right to the money generated by their labor. Team Market acknowledges that market forces are good for sports in general and for athletes in particular. And in any case, Team Market believes these particular horses left the barn ages ago and by now have probably nailed down a Nike endorsement.
This is a key distinction. One group questions how the NCAA goes about its business. The other questions the very existence of the NCAA. “Indentured” tends to straddle the line; it was the Team Market arguments that constituted the most serious threat to the status quo, and it was the Team Market arguments that were effectively neutralized in the biggest case against the NCAA. In her ruling in favor of O’Bannon, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken knocked down nearly every argument the NCAA advanced in defense of its amateurism model. Left standing, though, was the idea that big-time sports serve a pedagogical purpose that would be disrupted if these young adults were granted full participation in the American economy. “The Court finds that certain limited restrictions on student-athlete compensation may help to integrate student-athletes into the academic communities of their schools,” she wrote, “which may in turn improve the schools’ college education product.”
This was nonsense — athletes leave school early because of a lack of money — but it was Team Reform’s kind of nonsense, the NCAA’s kind of nonsense. In the midst of an apparent victory, it was despairing to watch the enshrinement in sober judicial prose of the same old paternalism, softer now, maybe, but still sturdy enough to keep the NCAA standing. Some money for the athletes, but not too much. Some reform, but not too much. Some justice, but not too much.
By Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
Portfolio/Penguin. 369 pp. $30