Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
This parable has a spiritual meaning first and foremost: whether one has toiled in the Kingdom for many years, or is new to the field of labor, God will give you an abundant reward. As with Jesus’ parables in general, he is driving at a deeper meaning than that which resides on the surface level, dealing particularly with spiritual salvation. In this parable, whether one has “worked” for the “landowner” for the whole day, for half of the day, or only for an hour, one receives the full spiritual reward. Yet, there is nothing that the parable can drive home to us spiritually if we are not absorbed by the story on the surface. The whole of Jesus’ parable deals with a situation that many of us might label as unjust if it happened in our workplace: certain laborers who have worked for the whole day receive the same amount, the same reward, as workers who have been hired at the end of the day. It doesn’t seem fair, but the landowner in Jesus’ parable says rightly that he has not cheated anyone and that he has a right to be generous with his employees as he chooses and as he is not breaking any contracts with any of his employees, only rewarding some latecomers, they have no complaint. The owner in this parable pays all of his employees according to contract and pays some who have worked less the same amount as others who have worked the full day out of his generosity. He is guilty, therefore, only of generosity.
College athletics, however, seems guilty of everything but generosity. If you follow sports at all, and perhaps even if you do not, you will have heard of the recent allegations about football and basketball players at the University of Miami receiving improper benefits as detailed by a former booster and now jailed Ponzi racketeer named Nevin Shapiro, found guilty of bilking investors of almost 1 billion dollars. The Yahoo Sports story meticulously outlined numerous wrong doings which Shapiro claimed he funded and in which he alleges many athletes participated, 72, over a period of eight years. In a NPR story, the claim was made,
that the story is "both shocking and deeply unsurprising," because "it's just not news that major college sports at big competitive universities are thinly veiled professional sports programs.""Is anybody talking about fundamental reform that would change that?" Robert asked. Yes, Tom said, but there's little likelihood of it happening. "There's too much invested in the current system ... too many people making lots of money on the current system [and] too many fans tied to the tradition of big-time college sports." So fundamental reform is unlikely, he said, "even if some elements of [major college sports] are seriously corrupt."
This is only the most salacious and recent case, though, of alleged rule-breaking in big-time college athletics. Ohio State, Boise State, University of Oregon and the University of Southern California have also been investigated recently for breaking NCAA rules. It is important that rules be followed, and some of the behaviors alleged in the case regarding the University of Miami detail serious moral failings and sins, so why do I find myself with sympathy for the players who have been tempted by and caught up in these messes and why does this parable from Jesus continue to nag at me with respect to college sports since I read it a few weeks ago? How does this parable apply to cheating and worse in college athletic programs?
One could argue that the student athletes receiving improper benefits are like the complaining workers who go to the landowner after he has paid others and now want to receive more for their work. After all, haven’t these players contracted to receive an education for their football or basketball scholarships? Does not Jesus’ parable point out their impropriety in breaking the rules and trying to get more than they agreed to receive? This reading, though, does not fit for me with the fact that the athletes in college football are the ones who come in late – the coaches and administrators remain, while they leave after one to four years – and that they do not share in the “landowner's” generosity, even while they produce the fruits of the harvest.
I would argue that athletes in major college programs are not functioning as students, but they are in fact “workers” hired to create and sustain big money sports programs who are subject to genuine injustice. Taylor Branch's recent story in the Atlantic Monthly outlines in exquisite detail how university athletes are workers subject to corrupt operators because they are not paid a fair recompense for their labor. In Jesus’ parable even those who are working only for a short time receive the same amount as those who have been working the whole day, but in college sports coaches, administrators and universities as a whole reap financial windfalls, while the athletes who are brought in for a short time to sustain these athletic systems receive a pittance. In the biggest money sports, basketball and football, the supposed education is often no more than a pretense in which the athletes prepare themselves for professional sports and the universities use their athletic prowess for a year or more and then move on to the next, newest recruits. The fact that many recruits in basketball and football come from underprivileged backgrounds, and have no financial support from their families, leave them open to unscrupulous operators such as Nevin Shapiro, who do not give them a just wage but the unjust profits of criminality and cheating. Supposedly, no one has a clue about these improper benefits and everyone seems befuddled by them when a program is caught, although everyone knows that money fuels the system and corruption is everywhere.
There is a spiritual aspect to play that is being lost in university athletics to corruption and cheating and that can only be restored with honesty and integrity. Money in sports is not new. The reality is that ancient sport was not the amateur endeavor that many people take it to have been, as books by Mark Golden will make clear, but the path to corruption is paved when the money is unfairly diverted from the athletes and they are tempted with a nod and wink to find that money through unscrupulous operators. The great comedian Harold Lloyd in his 1925 silent film The Freshman described the fictional Tate University as a football team around which a college had grown. This problem has been growing for almost a century. Sports, money, and misplaced priorities have gone together for a long time. It is difficult to believe, though, that there has ever been a time in which sports have had so much attention and money lavished upon them or have functioned as the center of so many observers’ lives, creating a religious devotion for players and teams, while the actual spiritual aspects of play, seen in the sheer joy of honing one’s skills and competing well, have been shunted to the sidelines. The people who are suffering most in this are the players in universities who are used to build wealth for others, not paid a fair wage and most of whom are tossed aside when their eligibility is used up. Those who reap the rewards of excessive pay in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB are few compared to those whose careers are done when their university eligibility is gone. In the parable, the landowner says, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?" In the parable of college athletics, though, the landowner is withholding wages from those who have worked for it and created envy not from generosity but from miserliness. These are the conditions where temptation thrives. Yet, fair wages and just labor practices mark one of Jesus' most challenging parables. Is it wrong to read Jesus’ parable in light of college sports and say, “Summon the laborers and give them their pay”? Generosity is not just a matter of the Spirit, though it is God's generosity that matters most, but a matter of concrete application to our day to day lives, in which we need to consider how to pay those who have earned it. No matter how long they work.
UPDATED: See The Shame of College Sports, Taylor Branch, The Atlantic Monthly
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens