Taylor Branch on Paying College Athletes

Historian Taylor Branch has a fascinating Atlantic article on the history of regulations forbidding pay for college athletes. He also makes a strong case for abolishing those rules and describes various legal challenges to them. I don’t agree with all of Branch’s analysis. For example, I’m not as optimistic as he is that lawsuits will soon lead to the end of the NCAA cartel. The Supreme Court has long interpreted the antitrust laws to exempt college sports, and it is unlikely to change its mind – both because a multibillion dollar industry has relied on those decisions and because the Court generally does not like reversing its statutory interpretation decisions.

But I do agree with Branch that the rules need to be changed. In any event, the article is well worth reading for anyone interested in the issue.

I myself made the case for allowing colleges to pay athletes here and here.

UPDATE: I should have said that the Supreme Court has long endorsed the view that the NCAA cartel forbidding payment of players does not violate the antitrust laws, as it said in this 1984 case:

In order to preserve the character and quality of the “product,” athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the “product” cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive.

That’s not the same thing as saying that all restraints on trade in college sports are permitted, and I was wrong to inadvertently conflate the two issues.