Taylor Branch, author of the epic multi-volume history of Martin Luther King and his times, has a long, long story for The Atlantic about the shame of college sports. I just finished my first quick read. You should go ahead and do the same.
The piece breaks little new ground, in my view. It’s important mostly because Branch was given space to say it. He’s a master historian, so the reader gets full access to the chronology of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s moral dysfunction. Branch also has a great perspective on race and the sports plantation system. Since he’s not African American himself but has a body of work with both gravitas and MLK street cred, his conclusions should be received as sober: polemical but not ideological.
The problem I have with this piece is the problem I have with almost everything I come across on sports reform. It’s all about the $$$. This is not Branch’s fault. In a material world where individuals make choices, including a lot of poor ones, social engineering is more or less reduced to an equitable distribution of the spoils, and creating categories of winners and losers in the most intuitive ways possible.
As someone who writes about the concussion issue, I searched throughout my first read for a reference to public health. I found none. I’ll look carefully through a second and third read. Perhaps there’s something there.
Of course, there’s this standard trope: “College athletics are rooted in the classical ideal of mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a sound body — and who would argue with that? College sports are deeply inscribed in the culture of our nation.”
But that is not so much a value as a recitation. Branch has good riffs on the failure of college football as college. Worse than a non-education (there is actually no such thing) is the default education now provided to athletes by American institutions of higher learning: the indelible lesson that “the system” is cynical and must be manipulated if those at the lower rungs of our society are to have any chance at success.
Mens sana in corpore sano, however, are just words in The Atlantic. I would have liked to have seen at least a nod toward both the orthopedic and the neurological toll of football; how the national culture of exposing our youngest and most vulnerable to undue physical risks starts far below the university level; and how reform of college sports will require a conversation larger than just how to divide the revenue pie.