Even after researching and writing “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” a searing indictment of college sports’ governing body, author Ben Strauss still can’t resist the power of the bracket. “March Madness is still a lot of fun! But at the same time, it’s hard to watch with the same passion as when I was younger knowing that the system is so fundamentally flawed,” Strauss says.
Those flaws are painstakingly catalogued in “Indentured,” co-authored by Joe Nocera. It charts the NCAA’s long history of funneling the spoils of college sports directly to coaches and administrators. The star athletes who generate the estimated $13 billion a year are unpaid “amateurs” and can have their careers taken away for the slightest violation of their amateur status or daring to speak out against the system.
Despite that pressure, the book depicts the many rebels who’ve pushed back, like Northwestern University’s Kain Colter, who led an effort to unionize the Wildcats football team in 2013. “Colter had taken a class at Northwestern about labor and after learning about the history of unions, he understood that college athletes needed a greater say in how college sports worked, just like professional athletes. The union push came as more and more people cast a critical eye toward the NCAA and the inequities of the system.”
While Colter and his teammates didn’t achieve collective bargaining, they brought wider attention to a range of issues and won important benefits for athletes. “While the National Labor Relations Board in Washington ultimately decided not to exert jurisdiction in the case, the pressure brought by the Northwestern players played a key role in new protections for college athletes. Scholarships now have stronger guarantees, some schools—though not all—offer better health care, and in some cases provide some care for players after graduation.”
Originally from Chicago, Strauss is a New York Times contributing sports writer. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. It’s eye-opening for so many college sports fans to see what’s there when you pull the curtain back on amateurism—really, there’s nothing. As for the NCAA, they have been pretty quiet. We did extensive fact-checking and interviewing with them, so they had an idea what was going to be in the book.”
While Strauss still plans on filling out his bracket, knowledge has come with a price. “The years of research and interviews have certainly taken a toll on my enjoyment, there’s no question. Ideally, there is reform coming to college sports and then we can enjoy it guilt-free.” (Timothy Parfitt)
“Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA”
By Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
Portfolio, 384 pages, $30
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.