The NCAA: A Modern Sovereign

Blog #4 (Themed Semester Event Power Up)

Section 10

Amy Perko and Taylor Branch both gave very compelling lectures about college athletics and the responsibilities and rights of student-athletes. Having sat through the talks back-to-back, I was really able to analyze the similarities and parallels between each of their arguments. They certainly did not have the same beliefs, yet much of what they had to say made me realize how “sovereign-esque” the NCAA really is.

Amy Perko is a very storied and accomplished woman. She played on the women’s basketball team at Wake Forest and was a three time academic all-american, which lead to her induction to the Wake Forest Hall of Fame. In her professional career, Perko has worked for the NCAA which has given her first hand experience on how business is conducted there. She, interestingly, has also worked as the team president for the Fayetteville Patriots (an NBA D-League team). Currently, Perko is the executive director of the Knight Commission, an organization which, as she put it, “promotes the ‘college’ in ‘college sports.'” She has held this position for the past ten years.

Taylor Branch is best known for his award-winning publications regarding the Civil Rights Era. Branch holds multiple impressive degrees from notable universities. At this point you may be wondering why a Civil Rights Movement historian would be giving a talk about sports. I was too, but then he said these words and it all made sense to me: “Student-athletes have no rights.”

Taylor Branch

Perko and Branch differ in opinions regarding compensation for athletes. Perko believes that a free education, when fully utilized, adequately compensates for a student-athlete’s play. She believes that student-athletes have their priorities “out of wack” and focus more upon sport than school. Perko asserts that if their priorities are straightened out, which is easily possible with the policies the Knight commission is lobbying for, an education will easily be repay a student-athlete for their efforts on the field.

Branch, however, believes it is completely unfair to withhold compensation from them. He cited that 70% of regular college students have jobs. Afterward, he mentioned that no student-athlete has time to work and gain money themselves because of how large of a time commitment their sport requires. The NCAA disallows any compensation by a student-athlete. He also stated how four college presidents told him that their salaries are three times what they would be if they didn’t bring in all of the revenue they do from sports. This goes to show just how much money making ability these college sports teams hold.

As each of the two lecturers were giving their speeches, I began to identify an interesting alignment between the NCAA as a whole and Hobbes’ idea of a sovereign (which was posed in Leviathan). Hobbes believes that the state of nature is “war of every man against every man.” He goes on to say that in order to suppress the violent state of nature, a sovereign should be appointed to hold absolute authority and protect the people. I believe the NCAA as a whole is a great comparison to Hobbes’ idea of a sovereign.

Branch spoke to the idea that there is no student-athlete representation while making executive decisions. In professional leagues the players are represented by a players association, however no players association exists for college athletes. The lack of say in decisions which directly affect them makes it unfair. This idea is reinforced by the existence of Perko’s Knight Commission in the first place. They try their best to lobby the NCAA to make education-first decisions, yet have no actual way of voting on decisions. Much of the time the NCAA completely disregards the Knight Commission’s suggestions and desires. A sovereign makes decisions with no resistance or checks and balances, just as the NCAA does.

To expand further upon this idea, I look into the future. Viewing student-athletes as an oppressed and angered body, I can foresee something which has potential to change everything very quickly. Taylor Branch said, “it is only a matter of time until the players strike.” I could not agree more with this statement. These players are far from amateurs (which is what the NCAA defines them as). They might soon realize how much weight is in the palm of their hands, and refuse to play without pay. University revenues would struggle greatly. Salaries of school officials would decrease. Things would crumble for the Universities which rely on sports for much of their wealth. This is comparable to the non-violent protests seen in Birmingham, Alabama lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail argues that people have a right to break unjust laws. If student-athletes see playing without pay as unjust for much long, we could very well see some drastic measures taken by the players themselves.