UNCs horned Dorset sheep mascot

SONJA HAYNES STONE CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—A packed house crammed the Sonja Haynes Stone Center Theater at UNC last night for a panel discussion titled “Big-Time Sports: What Needs to Change?”

Moderated by Will Blythe, author of the irreverent chronicle of the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, the panelists included former UNC president William Friday, Duke professor and author (most recently of Big-Time Sports in American Universities) Charles Clotfelter and UNC alum and Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch.

Branch fundamentally changed the national dialogue about college sports in October with a devastating essay, “The Shame of College Sports,” published in the Atlantic Monthly.

That essay has been expanded into an e-book, whose title, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, points up his main contention: that the NCAA, far from being a noble guarantor of fair play, is actually a bloated, corrupt body that deprives young athletes of basic rights.

Last night’s event started in a light-hearted fashion, with Blythe’s cheeky introductions of the other panelists, but the tone grew more serious as Branch expertly summed up his case against the status quo.

“If the university wants to enshrine amateurism, then it shouldn’t go into commercial sports for itself either. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.

As the discussion proceeded, the other panelists, who harbored more conventional complaints about the system, largely ceded the stage to Branch and his farther-reaching and passionate arguments.

A Q-and-A followed the discussion; the questioners, among them students and teachers at UNC who seemed largely sympathetic with Branch’s views, as well as football offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Shoop, who forcefully complained that the UNC players involved in recent NCAA “scandals” “had no advocates.”

“The university comes first, I’ve heard that a million times,” he said. “From where I sit, the young men and women that make up this university, is the university. And if we’re not going to advocate for them… I’m confused.”

Branch’s larger points required a 15,000-word essay to spell out, and a full discussion of it is beyond the scope of this blog post. But one particular occurrence is worth mentioning: At one point Branch claimed that he’d heard that “… athletes who want to come talk to me… cannot come see me, even privately, because their coaches won’t let them.” This drew murmurs from the crowd.

Listen to Branch’s statement here:

Later, after the moderator announced the end of the Q&A, one last attendee approached the questioner’s microphone: Bubba Cunningham, UNC’s new athletic director, newly hired from the University of Tulsa as of October.

He took a moment to praise the event, saying “I can’t think of a better place than the University of North Carolina to have this national discussion.”

He went on to say, “I commend you for being here, I thank you for being here, and know that you have our full cooperation in continuing the discussion.” At this point, a member of the crowd spoke up from the middle rows, asking, “Does that mean the students can speak to Mr. Branch?”

Cunningham wheeled to face him, surprised. “You’re ordering the coaches to allow them to do that?” continued the questioner, a gray-haired UNC alum and self-described writer of “crank letters” from Carrboro named J. Al Baldwin.

“Absolutely,” Cunningham reassured the gentleman and the assembled crowd.

Listen to the exchange here.

The practical implications of Cunningham’s promise are uncertain: If students were indeed warned away from Branch, it’s unlikely they would jeopardize their scholarships by going against their coach’s wishes, regardless of the director’s assurances.

This eyebrow-raising morsel of college sports realpolitik (“This is not a place of free inquiry, which is what it should be, if you have that kind of control vested in people who are not even on the faculty,” Branch said) should make sports fans think long and hard about what other rights revenue-sports athletes have been denied.