When he's not looking beyond the basketball court — and contemplating who is getting rich from college athletics and, more pointedly, who is not —Taylor Branch still enjoys the games.
"I watch the March Madness tournaments sporadically," the Baltimore civil rights historian said. "My new favorite team is the Maryland women, who are fun to watch. I'm hoping they can pull off a miracle against UConn's female juggernaut" in Sunday's semifinal.
But once the men's and women's Final Four games are over, the bigger picture looms. While some fans look at box scores, Branch can't help but scrutinize other numbers — such as the $10.8 billion that CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting paid for the rights to the NCAA men's tournament from 2011 through 2024, or the record-shattering cable television ratings of last weekend's Kentucky-Notre Dame regional final.
Branch questions why college players, who may receive athletic scholarships but are otherwise unpaid amateurs, can't vie in the open market for a share of the bonanza that's enriching conferences, colleges, coaches and others. The 68-year-old Mount Washington resident has emerged as a sought-after voice in the debate over whether NCAA athletes are being exploited.
Branch didn't set out to become a crusader for NCAA reform. He wrote an Atlantic Monthly article about the National College Athletic Association in 2011 that — more than he imagined — hit a nerve.
His role in the ensuing national discussion "has definitely taken on a life of its own," Branch said.
The debate — in courts, Congress and the news media — extends beyond pay and into the adequacy of athletic scholarships and of insurance for sports-related injuries.
"The systems as we know it will change," said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and member of the Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog organization. "I don't believe that the NCAA can continue in its current form for much longer — and candidly, that is not a bad thing. Where this ends up is still in the air, but the current model has not and will not work."
There is also a unionization debate. The National Labor Relations Board is reviewing an NLRB regional director's ruling last year that members of Northwestern University's football team can form a union.
While he doesn't oppose unionizing college athletes, Branch said it would be "a blazing absurdity that college athletes would be the first talent pool in history to win collective bargaining rights when they don't have any individual bargaining rights."
Branch has testified as an expert witness on the subject before the U.S. Senate and maintains a continuing dialogue with athletic directors and other college officials.
"Taylor has done some incredible work in this area," said Tom McMillen, a former Maryland congressman and basketball star who is advocating for the creation of a presidential commission to study the direction of college athletics.
It's an idea being pushed by more than a dozen U.S. House members. "I think this is going to have to be looked at by some very smart people who come back with some recommendations," McMillen said.
Branch said he favors such a commission "so long as it is broadly constituted to include sports economists and independent critics such as [ESPN commentator] Jay Bilas or [New Jersey] Sen. Cory Booker in addition to NCAA stalwarts."
NCAA officials "do not have a public comment regarding the presidential commission," said Stacey Osburne, an association spokeswoman.
Branch's involvement began with "The Shame of College Sports," his 2011 article that was expanded into an e-book about the NCAA called "The Cartel."
In the article, Branch described "corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as 'student-athletes' deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution."
Branch was previously best known as the author of a civil rights trilogy and is now developing an HBO miniseries on civil rights with "The Wire" creator David Simon. He has taught civil rights history in recent years as an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore.
"I started off pretty naive about this," said Branch, who grew up in Atlanta, attended the University of North Carolina and maintains the hint of a Southern accent. "I didn't approach it as a civil rights issue or anything. A lot of it is history: How did this happen? Where did the NCAA come from? How did it get its power?"
If he didn't realize it already, Branch's new role as college athletics reformer was confirmed when representatives of the National Football League players union visited him at his home in 2012.
"They all have many, many friends who played in college who are now beat up and have nothing to show for it and are not doing very well," Branch said of the union representatives.
"I'm not trying to force anybody to get paid. All I want is for athletes to be as free as anybody else to ask for money," he said. "I'm saying the piccolo player and the star college quarterback should have the same rights to ask for money, and the university should have the right to laugh at the piccolo player and sweat about whether the college quarterback is going to go somewhere else."
The NCAA declined to make a spokesperson available to discuss reforms. The association has said publicly that it embraces a number of proposals, including replacing traditional one-year renewable scholarships with multiyear guaranteed grants.
In 2014, Maryland was among the first Division I schools to guarantee that athletes can return with their scholarships intact as long as they left the university in good academic and social standing.
In January, the NCAA's five biggest conferences, including the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, voted to allow schools to expand athletic scholarships to include incidentals — such as routine personal transportation costs — beyond the traditional tuition, room and board. The change is estimated to mean several thousands of dollars a year more to the athletes.
It's a step that "makes a lot of sense," said McMillen, a longtime Maryland regent who isn't being reappointed by Gov. Larry Hogan when his term expires June 30.
But McMillen said weighty institutional issues remain.
"I think someone has to be in control of college sports," he said. "Right now, conferences are in control, big schools are in control, the NCAA is in control — they all have pieces of it."
McMillen, who played for 11 seasons in the National Basketball Association, proposes a "quid pro quo" to keep top players in school longer before they jump to the NBA. Too many players, he said, leave for the NBA after one college season as "faux" students.
NBA players must be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school to be eligible for the league. Commissioner Adam Silver favors raising those minimums to 20 years old and two years removed from high school, but the matter must be collectively bargained with the players union.
McMillen said that players might remain in school "if colleges treated them better" and that it would be reasonable, in return, for players to commit to remaining for longer than a single season.
The system relies on universities making allowances for athletes in admissions so that the schools can compete at top levels. That's something, Branch said, that schools need to take a hard look at.
Athletes admitted under more forgiving academic standards tend to maintain worse college grade-point averages, graduate at a lower rate and leave school at a higher rate than those entering under the usual criteria, according to a 2012 Baltimore Sun investigation examining the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences.
"In many respects, there's a moral Rubicon that you cross if you have separate standards for them," Branch said.
Branch and other reformers aren't sure sports fans are learning from the college athletics debate.
"I contend that we don't care," Ridpath said. "If we did, we would be outraged."
Said Branch: "People want to cheer and boo. They don't want to have to think."