“I understand that some, most or maybe all of the players involved come from economically challenged families. … But a full scholarship and all the perks that come with being a football star at Ohio State are no small advantages on a college campus. I’m fairly certain there are others in Columbus making do with far less.
“The bottom line is this: These players slapped Ohio State tradition in the face, for a profit.”
The NCAA’s long-standing amateurism rules have come undone in recent days. The Supreme Court ruled last week that amateurism alone was not a winning legal defense. Then, on Wednesday, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted to allow players to earn money selling autographs or as influencers on social media, a dramatic departure from decades of policing that very behavior with a 400-page rule book.
Forde, in an interview this week, said he welcomed the change, adding that he would not write such a column today.
“I would say my views have changed and it’s a dated outlook,” he said. “It is wild how it has turned on its head, and it needed to. I kind of feel bad for being a bit late to the party.”
But Forde’s turn mirrors one made by much of sports media over the past decade, as reporters and pundits began to more consistently view college sports through the lenses of race, labor and athletes’ rights. It’s a shift driven by myriad factors, including the growing power of online sports journalists; increased interest from non-sports journalists; a high-profile lawsuit; and the growing largesse of big-time college sports, which made the disparity between millionaire coaches and executives and unpaid players impossible to ignore.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the NCAA’s amateurism rules were mostly treated as sacred, and reporters made careers on what journalist Daniel Libit later dubbed “the scandal beat.” Two newspapers, the Arizona Daily Star and Lexington Herald-Leader, won Pulitzer prizes for investigating athletic departments in the 1980s. A 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated summed up the media’s point of view well: a somber cover with the headline “Kentucky’s Shame,” after an assistant coach was caught sending $1,000 to a player’s father.
In 1995, when the retiring architect of the NCAA’s rule book, Walter Byers, wrote a memoir denouncing the world he built, famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray responded by describing Byers’s original mission in glowing terms: “With a skeleton staff but the might of righteousness on their side, Walt Byers and his crew set out to keep a lid on the depravity.”
Even as the money got bigger in the 2000s — the Bowl Championship Series, which crowned a football champion, had a contract with Fox worth more than $330 million per year, and in 2010 the NCAA signed a 14-year pact with CBS and Turner for March Madness for $10.8 billion — there were outlets running splashy stories about athletes accepting cash, whether it was Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo at Southern California or stars at Miami. (USA Today created a database to track the spending in the mid-2000s.)
There were mainstream sportswriters who vocally criticized amateurism. Rick Telander wrote a book in 1989 called “The Hundred Yard Lie,” and Jason Whitlock, writing for the Kansas City Star and later ESPN and Fox, called the response to the ring-selling at Ohio State a “typical slave-catcher investigation.” But sociologist Harry Edwards, who wrote about the racial and power disparities of college sports as early as the 1960s, said one factor drove the majority of reporters’ reluctance to attack the system: access.
“Reporters had to go to bowl games and locker rooms and ask questions and have relationships with coaches,” he said.
But by 2009, Deadspin, the punchy and influential sports blog that prided itself on covering sports without access, began to loudly question the value of those scandal stories, eventually creating a tag for the topic: “Death to the NCAA.”
“It reminded me of the drug war,” said Tommy Craggs, a former Deadspin editor who referred to reporters on the beat as “mall cops,” much to their chagrin. “It was a story about criminalization, not crime, and it seemed so messed up and racist to predicate your college sports reporting on doing these narc stories about individuals instead of the larger theft on this massive scale.”
When former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in 2009 for using his likeness in a video game without compensation, it wasn’t necessarily a blockbuster story inside sports. But it made the issue less about salaries from schools and more about the restrictions on endorsements, a source of income that polling shows the general public supports today.
It also engaged a group of influential reporters from outside sports who covered the man behind the lawsuit, former Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, who had turned on the system that he had helped build. Colorful, provocative and quotable, Vaccaro’s crusade against the NCAA was profiled by Jason Zengerle in the New Republic in 2009 and then in early 2011 by Lowell Bergman on PBS’s “Frontline.” (Years later, Vaccaro would star in his own “30 for 30” documentary.)
Bergman, on camera, questioned NCAA President Mark Emmert about the TV contracts in the context of unpaid players. “That’s a lot of money,” Bergman said. “It is. It is, yes,” replied Emmert, appearing startled. The camera then cut to Vaccaro: “It’s a business, and good for them! It’s an unbelievable business!”
Vaccaro was also featured in probably the most important piece of reporting on the subject: Taylor Branch’s cover story for the Atlantic in the fall of 2011. The cover image was a young, shirtless black man with a “Property of the NCAA” tattoo. “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not,” Branch wrote.
Branch, a civil rights historian and author, came to write about the NCAA through the usual front door: scandal. A friend and former president of North Carolina, William Friday, asked Branch to write something that could help schools limit the corrupting influence of big-time sports, the popular position for those who believed in college sports reform.
His reporting, of course, led him to see the story not as one about academic purity but one of athletes’ rights.
“The level of brainwashing was so great,” he said in an interview. “There’s an ongoing economic and political crime being perpetrated against college athletes. It’s one thing to say amateurism doesn’t make sense, but even today how many people are out there saying this system is exploitative and we’re all complicit in it? That’s where I landed. It took me a long time.”
Branch wrote that college sports had “the unmistakable whiff of the plantation,” and he framed amateurism as a civil rights issue: young Black football and basketball players generating billions of dollars for White coaches and executives at their schools. MSNBC, the New Yorker and ESPN discussed the story; it was turned into an e-book and a documentary.
“The further removed from the college sports ecosystem, the more insane you find the whole premise,” ESPN commentator Bomani Jones said. “These reporters came from outside sports and also made this an issue for the audience — including college presidents — that reads the Atlantic.”
As bloggers, agitators and prestige outlets suddenly questioned the premise of college sports, another powerful voice came from the inside. Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball player turned ESPN commentator, used his influential Twitter feed as a never-ending stream of criticism of NCAA policies. That included a series of tweets in 2013 in which he posted screenshots that showed how the NCAA’s online store, which purported to not sell players’ jerseys, allowed users to type star players’ names into a search box and be directed to buy a jersey with that player’s number.
The impact of this new brand of coverage and commentary became evident that year when Johnny Manziel, the star quarterback at Texas A&M and one of the players Bilas had highlighted in his tweets, was briefly suspended for accepting money for autographs. Much of the reporting focused not on those payments but a study that found the Heisman-winning Manziel had been worth some $37 million to the school in a single year. Time magazine splashed Manziel on its cover that fall with a new headline: “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes.”
“Manziel was an inflection point,” Jones said, pointing out that he was a White quarterback who came from a wealthy family. “It took it out of the context of poverty and it allowed people to see what the absurdity of the idea was.”
It all registered for Forde in 2018, when he broke several stories about the FBI’s investigation into college basketball stars getting paid under the table.
“You’ve got a national investigation by the Department of Justice, and it’s like, ‘This is going to be really big,’” Forde said.
But it wasn’t. A Wall Street Journal column about the probe was titled: “Secret Cash Isn’t an NCAA Scandal. Amateurism Is.”
“Whether it was scandal fatigue or, ‘Who cares these guys are getting money,’” Forde said, “I think there was a significant generational change in how people thought about college athletes getting money above or below the table.”
Last week, Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote a concurrent opinion alongside the court’s decision. It read like a postscript to this most recent era of coverage.
“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote, adding, “The NCAA is not above the law.”
Or, as journalist Richard Johnson said on one college football podcast, “Justice Kavanaugh basically wrote a blog post.”