North Carolina

Why more athlete freedom could come at the expense of intensified academic scrutiny from the NCAA

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, tries to steal the ball from Pittsburgh’s Cameron Johnson in February.
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, tries to steal the ball from Pittsburgh’s Cameron Johnson in February. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Cameron Johnson will be allowed to play basketball at North Carolina next season, but NCAA critic Taylor Branch thinks Johnson’s victory in his highly publicized eligibility battle is an example of a philosophical shift by the NCAA to focus more on academic integrity.

Johnson would have been out of luck if he wanted to play for the Tar Heels until the NCAA’s graduate-transfer rule allowing athletes to be immediately eligible after graduating from their previous school was implemented in 2011. It is one of several recent rule changes put in place as resistance to the NCAA’s treatment of athletes has mounted.

While the NCAA’s stranglehold on the freedom and amateur status of its athletes has weakened, though, it has chosen to assert its influence in other ways.

“The NCAA is having a harder and harder time justifying the economic restrictions and the control restrictions on athletes, so they have been emphasizing their academic role,” said Branch, a civil rights historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and 1968 UNC graduate. “Eventually, they’re going to have a hard time doing that, too, because they can’t really justify themselves as an academic organization.”

Branch is one of the main reasons the NCAA has become a lightning rod for criticism this decade. His 14,500-word cover story in The Atlantic in October 2011 headlined “The Shame of College Sports” received so much attention that he expanded it into an e-book titled “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.”

“I’m not predicting imminent collapse any longer,” Branch said last week. “The NCAA has an enormous amount of inertia from its finances”

When Branch’s story was published, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s ability to profit off players’ images was making its way to court. Branch predicted in 2011 that if O’Bannon won, it would “radically change college sports,” but the 2014 verdict in O’Bannon’s favor only resulted in incremental changes.

The ruling allowed schools to give athletes full cost-of-attendance scholarships covering more than just tuition, and EA Sports stopped making its NCAA football and basketball video games and settled with the former athletes it had portrayed in the games.

The initial verdict also allowed schools to entrust athletes with $5,000 per year, but the NCAA successfully had that part of the decision reversed in the U.S. Court of Appeals. Athletes still cannot be paid salaries or profit off their likenesses.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. People are reluctant to look behind the curtain and say this doesn’t make any sense,” Branch said. “The courts haven’t done it yet, Congress hasn’t done it yet and the athletes — who could probably bring the whole system down very quickly with any kind of pressure or resistance like they did at the University of Missouri a couple years ago — the athletes love their sport too much.

“The system limps along on the fact that it’s exploiting the athletes because they love what they’re doing, and by the time they realize how unfair the system is to them, they’re about to graduate.”

But lawsuits from former athletes like O’Bannon put enough dents in the NCAA’s armor that the organization shifted its strategy. The NCAA is more hesitant to suspend players for extra benefits infractions, like it did when Ohio State football players exchanged merchandise for tattoos or when Georgia’s A.J. Green sold his own jersey in 2010.

Now, academic fraud in under the microscope, and it has been at the center of recent investigations into Syracuse men’s basketball, Ole Miss football and, of course, North Carolina athletics.

UNC has fought the NCAA’s allegations that the school used fraudulent classes to keep athletes eligible, arguing that the NCAA should not have jurisdiction over an academic matter. The school is still awaiting what, if any, punishment the NCAA will hand down.

“Public opinion has turned against a multi-billion dollar industry penalizing, for petty infractions, the very people who generate the multi-billion dollars,” Branch said. “They are trying to change their image from an indefensible position of enforcing amateurism and collecting all the money into an image as the protector of the student-athlete, which is their phrase that offends me so much.”

Branch explains in his story in The Atlantic that the NCAA crafted the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s to avoid having to provide the benefits and injury compensation that would be available to employees. It has since become a ubiquitous part of the college sports lexicon.

“Why do you hyphenate that? According to the census bureau, 14 out of 20 million college students have jobs outside the classroom... Nobody calls them student-cashiers or student-entrepreneurs or student-musicians,” Branch said. “The practical purpose it serves is in the classroom, they’re treated as jocks, and where they’re commercially liable (as athletes), they’re treated as students who don’t have the same rights that all the other students have.”

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