Should colleges pay their athletes? What Catholic social teaching has to say.

You might have to read it more than once before it really hits you, but there it is, right in the introduction, a word that does not seem to belong: neoplantation.

It is in a 1997 book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, written by the late Walter Byers, about college sports and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In this particular passage, Byers is talking about the N.C.A.A. Presidents’ Commission, a former governing body of the organization.

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“Today, the NCAA Presidents’ Commission is...firmly committed to the neoplantation belief that the enormous proceeds from college games belong to the overseers (the administrators) and supervisors (coaches),” Byers writes. “The plantation workers in the arena may receive only those benefits authorized by the overseers. This system is so biased against human nature and simple fairness in light of today’s high-dollar, commercialized college marketplace.”

“Neoplantation” is hyphenated from page 2 to page 3, and in the moment it takes your eyes to move from the bottom of one page to the top of the next, you wonder—is he really going to make that comparison? He does, and it might be the most surprising clue to the ongoing turmoil within the N.C.A.A.

Why? Byers ran the association, serving as its first executive director for 36 years.

Athletes who play football and men’s basketball at large institutions often generate a huge profit for their universities.

Whether or not the slavery metaphor is extreme, Byers identifies a sentiment that has continued to grow since he wrote his book in 1997: College athletes deserve more money for their efforts. More specifically, athletes who play football and men’s basketball at large institutions often generate a huge profit for their universities. That money, of course, helps to fund other sports programs at a university. But it far exceeds what the football and basketball athletes receive in return—usually some combination of a scholarship, equipment and media exposure.

A changing legal landscape in college sports has renewed the discussion of what is “fair” for college athletes when it comes to compensation. In September 2019, a law passed in California opened new doors for college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness, and other states are considering similar legislation. By the N.C.A.A.’s own admission, it will have to make some changes very soon to ensure compliance with this law, though the extent of those changes remains to be seen.

“Sport is at the service of man, and not man at the service of sport.”

But perhaps, in the midst of this debate, the Catholic tradition can offer a framework for moving forward. During his papacy, Pope St. John Paul II spoke to many groups of athletes—an Argentine national soccer team, Italian mountain climbers, waterskiers from all over the world—and often returned to the same theme. “Sport is at the service of man, and not man at the service of sport,” he said in a 1990 address.

How could that simple insight shape the debate about compensation for college athletes? Maybe, if developed, a Catholic perspective would find a balance between the basic good of athletic competition and the financial opportunities of college sports as entertainment. Maybe this perspective can help place a concern for the whole human person at the center of the conversation.

Language Barrier

“The issue now is that you have to define what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable,” said John Wildhack, director of athletics at Syracuse University. “There needs to be a framework which applies at a national level and says, ‘Here are ways where [profiting off name, image and likeness] is appropriate and here are ways where it’s not appropriate,’” he said.

What is “appropriate” and “not appropriate” depends on whom you ask. Jordan Schmid, a junior midfielder on the Marquette University men’s lacrosse team, has some concerns about the proper way to move forward, particularly when considering anything that treats college athletes as employees.

Mr. Schmid is the president of Marquette’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a liaison group between athletes and administration that exists at all N.C.A.A. member schools. (He emphasized that these opinions are his own and that he does not presume to speak for his fellow athletes at Marquette.)

“If you look at regular students, they’re able to use their name for whatever it’s worth,” he said. “That’s awesome, and I think student-athletes should have that opportunity.... But I think the rules around it have to be very strict. What makes me nervous is, say, Zion Williamson [the first pick in the 2019 N.B.A. draft] signs a deal with Nike for a million dollars in high school, and then Nike tells him ‘you have to go to this university because it’s better for us for marketing.’”

“What makes me nervous is, say, Zion Williamson signs a deal with Nike for a million dollars in high school.”

He said that Marquette’s S.A.A.C. continues to have conversations about the best way to proceed, and he knows that the administrators are committed to hearing what students have to say. “At the end of the day, college athletics is about playing the sport you love and getting a great education at the same time,” Mr. Schmid said.

But some people understand the relationship between athlete and university as more transactional. One such person is Domonique Foxworth. Mr. Foxworth, 36, has experienced sports from just about every possible angle. He played football as a defensive back for the University of Maryland, spent six years playing in the N.F.L., served as president of the N.F.L. Players’ Association, graduated from Harvard Business School and now plays a number of different roles at ESPN.

The new California legislation does not give Mr. Foxworth much hope; it proposes surface-level changes in a system he thinks is fundamentally flawed. He says it adds an extra step for an athlete looking to make some money off his or her ability.

“[The California law] still doesn’t require the N.C.A.A. to pay for athletes’ labor,” said Mr. Foxworth. So, as an athlete, “you have to go around and shop for places who want to use your likeness. Rather than paying them for the labor, [the N.C.A.A.] has basically told athletes that they have to go get another job.”

Another complicating factor is the way money currently moves within athletic departments. Most of them function by siphoning money from the larger, revenue-generating sports into sports programs that make no money.

“It’s kind of insulting that the expectation is for the big two revenue-producing sports to work to support the other sports,” said Mr. Foxworth. “Those sports are great. I hope they continue to exist. But it’s not the responsibility of football and basketball players to work for free so that they can exist.”

A term like labor is not in the vocabulary of the N.C.A.A., which insists that college athletes are not employees.

Mr. Schmid talks about the importance of a great education and having fun, and Mr. Foxworth talks about athletes as a labor force. Are they disagreeing? Not exactly. It is more like the two are speaking different languages. A term like labor is not in the vocabulary of the N.C.A.A., which insists that college athletes are not employees.

Getting everyone on the same page means first attempting to understand the history of a term that defines the N.C.A.A.’s entire system: amateurism.

A Tarnished Ideal

The N.C.A.A. was founded in 1906, by which time college athletics—and its most popular sport, football—had already endured a surprisingly tumultuous history.

In 1869, college football’s first game ended with Rutgers beating New Jersey (soon to be known as Princeton) 6 to 4. In the decades that followed, the sport became immensely popular, with Ivy League schools like Princeton, Yale and Penn consistently fielding some of the best teams in the country. A young man by the name of Walter Camp, after playing at Yale in the late 1870s, returned to coach at his alma mater and became known as the Father of American Football for his countless innovations in the game, including the line of scrimmage, the number of downs allowed and a limit of 11 players on the field for each team (it had previously been 15).

It is tempting to look back at this time as a more innocent age, but even then, corruption posed serious threats to the future of the game. Many coaches at top football programs would persuade players to enroll at the school ahead of a big game, and they would leave afterwards, sometimes playing for a different team the following week. Mr. Camp himself reportedly maintained an alumni-funded $100,000 slush fund—equivalent to nearly $3 million today—and used this secret pool of money to provide benefits to athletes who played for him.

When President Theodore Roosevelt created the N.C.A.A. in the early 20th century, the ideal upon which the organization was founded was already tarnished.

A muckraker journalist named Henry Beach Needham brought many of these unsettling trends to the public eye, and he saw a link among them: a win-at-all-costs mentality. In an article that appeared in McClure’s magazine in 1905, Mr. Needham asked, “Who can blame the college man for harboring a desire to win? No one. But it is more than that. To win at any cost—that is the source of the present deplorable condition of intercollegiate athletics.”

So when President Theodore Roosevelt created the N.C.A.A. in the early 20th century, the ideal upon which the organization was founded was already tarnished: that the amateur athlete is motivated purely by a love of their sport.

The N.C.A.A. also did not accomplish much in the way of enforcing this ideal during the first 45 years of its history. A comprehensive report from the Carnegie Foundation in 1929 on the state of college athletics explained the numerous ways schools’ recruiting tactics were in blatant violation of toothless N.C.A.A. guidelines. Money was nearly always involved in recruiting; “One seldom exists without the other,” said the report. Of 112 schools in the study, 72 percent of them provided some form of subsidies to prospective athletes.

Byers
Walter Byers, first executive director of the N.C.A.A., at his desk in 1961. Byers ran the organization for 36 years. (AP Photo/File)

Things changed for the N.C.A.A. in 1951, when a 29-year-old college dropout named Walter Byers took over the organization. He convinced N.C.A.A. member schools to accept sanctions imposed by the organization for violations. Whereas previously the association could only penalize schools with the full support of all the member institutions, it now began to act with some authority.

Over the next few decades, the N.C.A.A. cracked down hard on recruiting violations. It controlled TV rights as college games began to be broadcast around the country. It shut down athletic programs altogether—a move colloquially known as the “death penalty” (it has happened three times in Division I history). Some of these regulations, notably the exclusive control of TV rights, have been challenged or overturned in the courts over the past 40 years. But others have been expanded, to the extent that the N.C.A.A. annually publishes a 400-plus page manual governing the operation of Division I athletics, the highest-ranking division in collegiate sports.

And with more structure came more money.

In 1952, Byers signed an initial $1.14 million television contract with NBC; today, the N.C.A.A. generates over $1 billion in revenue every year. Conferences and individual universities make millions from combinations of television rights, sponsorships, tickets and merchandise—everything from the primetime Saturday night slot on ESPN to the branded Nike T-shirts at the bookstore.

Scholarship or Salary?

Despite the big business of college sports, the N.C.A.A. is adamantly opposed to anything that smells like “pay-for-play”—paying the athletes some kind of salary for their performance. College athletes are amateurs, not professionals, they insist.

But this suggests that the organization does not understand its own history. The N.C.A.A. is hell-bent on preserving an untainted amateurism that has never actually existed in intercollegiate athletics. Outside interests, as noted above, have always been mixed up in the system of college sports. The reality, as Mr. Byers said in his post-retirement book, is that athletes “receive only those benefits authorized by the overseers.”

The N.C.A.A. is adamantly opposed to anything that smells like “pay-for-play.”

You can see his point by looking backwards. Consider a Conference on Intercollegiate Athletics meeting in 1898, which described the distribution of scholarships as totally opposed to the spirit of college sports: “[T]he practice of assisting [athletes] through college in order that they may strengthen the athletic teams is degrading to amateur sport,” they said. Today, however, this practice is not only accepted but encouraged. Scholarships are the principal financial benefit offered to college athletes.

Or consider that in recent years, the N.C.A.A. has made several increases in the benefits that college athletes may receive. For instance, in 2014 the organization decided that athletes could receive unlimited meals and snacks. And, as noted, within the next few years, athletes will have the ability to profit in some way from use of their name, image and likeness—something prohibited for decades.

The N.C.A.A.’s own history begs us to ask—can there be a better system for regulating college sports than this arbitrary, tangled-up mess of amateurism?

The Play Element

The answer is tied up with the previously mentioned Catholic concern for the whole human person. The Catholic approach to this issue begins with the argument that there is an intrinsic goodness in athletic activity. At their best, sports help people to develop in body and mind, and they encourage friendship with both teammates and competitors. Pope John Paul II, in the address to athletes cited earlier, described the ideal athlete along these same lines: “[O]ne must have honesty with oneself and with others, loyalty, moral strength (over and above physical strength), perseverance, a spirit of collaboration and sociability, generosity, broadness of outlook and attitude, and ability to live in harmony with others.”

There is another, perhaps more accessible way to look at this intrinsic goodness of sports. It is what Patrick Kelly, S.J., refers to as the “play element”—playing a sport for its own sake, for the enjoyment of it, because you love it.

Ewing
Patrick Ewing of Georgetown University puts up a shot against St. John’s University in the semifinals of the 1984 Big East basketball tournament. Georgetown won the game 79-68. Ewing would go on to a Hall-of-Fame career in the N.B.A. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Father Kelly, a professor at Seattle University, is the author of Catholic Perspectives on Sports: From Medieval to Modern Times. He has found that his students, many of them athletes, resonate with this concept of the play element as a way to understand sport in a human, perhaps even spiritual way.

Any athlete who has ever been swept up in the beautiful, inexplicable, creative flow of a successful practice session, or pushed his or her body beyond its perceived limits in the heat of competition, understands this play element. Such moments are ecstatic, joyful and often indescribable. A Catholic approach to sport, says Father Kelly, wants to encourage the pursuit of this activity. Nor should sport be kept isolated from other areas of an athlete’s life.

“In college, I started becoming more explicitly interested in my faith life,” said Father Kelly, who played football at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. “And then for a little bit of time in my 20s, I thought that I was supposed to put behind me these childish things [like athletics] and focus on spiritual things. But for me, that didn’t work well. I was so profoundly shaped as a human being by my participation in sports.... In order to understand myself, and even my spiritual life, I had to understand my own lived experiences.”

In a Catholic understanding, sports should be a cause for growth, for an athlete’s overall development. The play element is key. The amateurism of the N.C.A.A. encourages all of that, too. Playing the game for its own sake, loving the competition—the current system of college athletics admires these ideals.

So should Catholics, like the N.C.A.A., oppose salaries for college athletes?

Intrinsic and Extrinsic

The answer to that question begins with a simple yet profound distinction, pointed out by Tom Massaro, S.J., a professor at Fordham University and an expert in Catholic social teaching. I had just finished telling him about my conversation with Father Kelly when he suggested something.

“That’s the intrinsic value of sports,” said Father Massaro, referring to the play element. “A sense of play, a sense of joy. It’s an end in itself.” But there exists another layer to college sports, he said: “When you get to the level of collegiate sports, or professional sports, extrinsic things come in. It’s good to make this distinction. The extrinsic says, ‘Forget about you and your enjoyable experience. What are the outside things that are related to your sports activity?’”

“When you get to the level of collegiate sports, or professional sports, extrinsic things come in.”

College athletes are in it for the fulfillment, the enjoyment, the skill building, said Father Massaro. “But surrounding that relationship of person to sport are larger relationships. Often they involve, for example, money, power or prestige,” he said. “It would be foolish to ignore the extrinsic.” For example: “It’s really an injustice to ignore the fact that someone is making a buck on a guy’s athletic ability.”

If one applies this intrinsic-extrinsic distinction to the N.C.A.A., it becomes clear that “amateurism” is an attempt to treat intrinsic and extrinsic concerns all in one stroke. The N.C.A.A. 2019-20 manual for Division I sports defines amateurism by explaining that athletes’ “participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived,” and they “should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”

“It feels like we’re working backwards to preserve the system as much as possible,” said Mr. Foxworth. “Where I think we should start is making the system as just as possible,” he told me.

“Where I think we should start is making the system as just as possible.”

He and Father Massaro are circling the same idea: the N.C.A.A. system assumes that there is no place for athletes’ compensation in collegiate sports—but players, lawmakers and fans are continually calling for that assumption to be re-evaluated.

From a Catholic perspective, re-evaluating the rules around this does not necessarily negate the simple goodness of playing sports. The Catholic ethical framework wants both the intrinsic and extrinsic to work for the good of the human person.

Smith AP
DeVonta Smith of the University of Alabama hauls in the winning touchdown catch against the University of Georgia in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. In 2017-18, the football programs at Alabama and Georgia generated $111.1 million and $129 million in revenue, respectively. (AJ Reynolds/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Uncharted Territory

While the Catholic viewpoint offers a shared language for the conversation, it does not offer any easy answers to the question at the heart of this ongoing debate: To what extent should college athletes receive financial compensation? By venturing into the specifics, we are entering “uncharted territory” in Catholic social teaching, says Father Massaro.

Consider the case of a quarterback for a large institution. His contribution to the school helps generate ticket and merchandise sales, drives viewership for television networks and boosts the sales of the apparel brands that he wears while he plays. In return, he receives a scholarship, athletic training and coaching, equipment and an opportunity to showcase his skills. Is that enough?

By venturing into the specifics, we are entering “uncharted territory” in Catholic social teaching.

“Any ethicist,” said Father Massaro, “would ask the question: ‘Why is the labor of this person—even if it’s enjoyable labor, like being a quarterback—why is the labor of that person benefiting a third party, such as the school, or the state [in the case of a public university], or even advertisers?’” A lot hinges on the answer to that question.

“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” Mr. Foxworth told me. “It’s a business like any other. Players are the labor, and I feel like those players deserve to be compensated. At one point it was a collegiate [educational] endeavor, and it still is that way for many athletes. But for the ‘big two’ sports, [football and basketball], it’s not at all collegiate sports, it’s professional sports.”

Does the financial data support Mr. Foxworth’s claim? Among “Power Five” schools—those who participate in one of the five major football conferences—about half of the football programs cleared a threshold of $50 million in revenue in 2017-18 (the latest available data), with the University of Texas leading the way with a whopping $143 million in revenue.

“It’s a business like any other. Players are the labor, and I feel like those players deserve to be compensated.”

With that in mind, here is a thought experiment: How many Power Five football teams could afford to pay their best 40 players $25,000 per year in addition to their scholarships? That adds up to $1 million per year.

The results: Sixty out of the 65 could afford to pay this purely out of the profits generated from their football programs. But for 52 of the schools, this million dollars is less than 10 percent of their profits from football, so there would still be plenty of money to go around to other sports programs. And if you want to look for a different source of money, try coaches’ salaries—the lowest-paid coach at a Power Five school made $1.8 million in 2019. Public university football coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their state.

While $25,000 is not an overwhelming amount of money, it could make a huge difference in the lives of college athletes. Managed properly, it could provide players with at least some small measure of insurance if injury ended their chances at playing professionally. It offers an opportunity to teach athletes proper financial management skills. And for those players who come from low-income backgrounds, it would mean they do not have to wait for their chance to play professional sports to begin assisting their families financially.

“A big misconception—and I’m not sure how many people really believe this—is that there isn’t enough money to pay the players,” said Mr. Foxworth.

“There’s plenty of money.”

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