"I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly admitted of their academic well-being, “all of them—really.” He cited the demands of travel and nonstop training—“playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning.” Still, somehow, only one idea provokes a battle cry to defend academic integrity. A right for athletes to seek fair monetary compensation would risk “Armageddon,” as Notre Dame president Jenkins put it.
“That’s when we leave,” he told New York Times reporter Dan Barry. “We will not tolerate that.” He vowed instead to collapse the entire Notre Dame sports machine into sandlot club teams. Shrewd observers have suspected a brazen strategic bluff, but Father Jenkins marshalled ethical and religious defenses grounded in his training. “I don’t think there’s a compulsion,” he said, “or some demand of justice.” He dissected a published charge that NCAA schools violate basic rights of their athletes (disclosure: specifically mine in The Atlantic), and found it “a little overheated.”
“So the thesis is, we exploit these young people for financial gain,” Jenkins began. “Let’s just think about that.” He said Notre Dame takes money from its high-revenue football and basketball teams “to help soccer players play soccer, help fencers fence, help swimmers swim.” This benevolent practice fits the “essential character” of education. A diversion of funds does take place, he concluded, “but that doesn’t seem to be exploitation.”
Aquinas and other theologians would look deeper. Only a tiny piece of captured sports revenue goes to the less marketable athletes. The bulk of it raises a golden pyramid in the sports establishment for head coaches, assistant coaches, broadcasters, strength coaches, advertisers, recruiters, builders, administrators, tutors, and so on. A secondary subsidy gives the facilities and non-student workers in money-losing sports a respectable share of the university brand, such that Florida paid its volleyball coach nearly $365,000 in 2009. In context, a noble motive to help swimmers and fencers must be weighed against the underlying conduct toward revenue-producing athletes. Schools pursue an aggressive commercial business outside the classroom by stripping the core talent of basic rights that other citizens take for granted. Indeed, NCAA rules forbid college players to seek any material reward, however slight, for athletic value, condemning their enterprise as uniquely unethical.
NCAA officials maintain that economic constraints on college athletes are vital for their own well-being and academic success. Emmert’s 2014 testimony to U.S. senators included an argument to this effect:
The most important thing for young people in college is to focus on education and earn their degrees. Attempts to label student-athletes as employees rather than students due to their participation in a voluntary athletic activity that establishes no expectation of compensation when they enroll can only blur and, in fact, undermine the focus on education. These attempts are ultimately not in the best interest of the student-athlete or the college environment.
Prominent economists, on the other hand, argue that big-time college sports are a textbook illustration of collusion to rig the labor market against the interest of those athletes. Such arguments put academic leaders and NCAA officials on notice that they may yet have to answer for unjust behavior. Gifts to needy athletes become far less righteous when extracted from others by fiat. If a charitable donation were atonement for ill-gotten gains, every thief would enjoy a handy alibi, and FIFA’s soccer executives would not be facing indictment for misappropriated funds.