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Miami, the NCAA and America's last plantation

Almost everyone is outraged at the NCAA's handling of the Shapiro investigation. Robert Wheel explains how you can't be outraged at "guilty until proven innocent" unless you're outraged at players being unpaid too.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Last night the Miami Herald reported that the NCAA told former University of Miami players that, if they did not participate in its investigation of booster Nevin Shapiro, they would be guilty until presumed innocent. Naturally, this raised a lot of late-night Twitter ire. After all, defendants in American criminal courts are innocent until proven guilty. The NCAA just seemed un-American.

Actually, the NCAA behaves just like a certain pre-1865 American institution: the plantation. Taylor Branch proved as much in his evisceration of the NCAA. The players are "compensated" with free housing and schooling but have no due process rights. The pre-1865 plantations were eventually replaced with sharecropping. Sharecroppers often worked on de facto plantations, but eventually they were able to assert their rights thanks to the Thirteenth (anti-slavery), Fourteenth (citizenship and due process) and Fifteenth (voting) Amendments.

College football players don't enjoy those rights with respect to the NCAA. They don't have the right to earn a wage. They don't have the due process rights. Mark Emmert is an overpaid buffoon running an inept organization, but the unpaid players that he throws into his NCAA violation starchamber have no way to assert their rights against him. When your "wage" is the ability to live and study at a university for free (a right that can be taken away at a moment's notice) then you have no leverage against your superiors. I don't think the NCAA needs to give players the rights that citizens have with respect to their government; I'm just illustrating how due process is tied to the right to earn money.

That's why you should contrast the Shapiro investigation with the Saints bounty scandal. NFL players, as workers and not "student athletes," were able to form a union that could collectively bargain with the league. When Roger Goodell tried to suspend them on the basis of dodgy evidence (though it was certainly better evidence than the word of a convicted felon) the players took him to court and the suspensions were eventually reduced or overturned because of their collectively bargained rights. When players are paid they can organize. When players organize they can assert their rights to due process.

That's because the NFL represents modern America; the boss still has his odds stacked in his favor against the workers but he can't treat them like slaves. In America we eventually got rid of our plantations. But much of the Caribbean and Central America kept their plantations well into the Twentieth Century. That's why you hear tinhorn dictatorships referred to as banana republics. Guilty until proven innocent is a common banana republic feature.

Fulgencio Batista would do an excellent job running the NCAA. He'd love to find unpaid players guilty in a kangaroo court based on allegations from a jock-sniffing criminal. But if you started paying players, threw out the arcane NCAA rulebook and gave college football players the right to collectively bargain then we wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit every few months.

I've seen near universal outrage at the NCAA's actions in the Miami investigation but there are still plenty of people who think college football players should not be paid. And I'd be the first to admit that paying college football players would change the sport irrevocably. But if you want to keep the Banana Republic of Emmert in charge that means you have to put up with bullshit. Because progress isn't free; it comes at a cost. Clutching your pearls because you're afraid college football will change too much is an insult to everyone who gets treated like a slave by the NCAA.

You can't disentangle the issues of paying players and the issue of giving them due process rights. So if you're outraged at the NCAA's actions in the Shapiro investigation then you should also be outraged that players don't get paid. Guilty until proven innocent is un-American. So is forcing people to work for free.

So do you want the NCAA to be a banana republic or you want it to be America?