Ethics & Public Policy Center

Skin in the Game: Pro Athletes and Education

Published in National Review Online on August 31, 2020


It would be churlish to describe as yet another exercise in political correctness last week’s strikes in which professional athletes, by refusing to play scheduled games, tried to signal their desire to be part of “social justice” reform in the United States. Pro athletes are not automatons. They have convictions and passions. And as the late Jackie Robinson made abundantly clear, they can help rouse a nation’s conscience and spur it to make real the promise in the Pledge of Allegiance: liberty and justice for all.

The difference, however, is that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ immortal No. 42 had real skin in the game: skin that was spiked by racists; skin that was beaned; skin that was bruised by his slashing style of base-running, an expression of his courageous determination to embody black excellence in an arena where a baseball-smitten America had to pay attention. Like Branch Rickey, the man who hired him to break the game’s infamous color line, Jackie Robinson knew American hearts had to be changed before American customs and laws changed; a change in culture, not “social justice” sloganeering, was essential, and that meant putting skin in the game.

What skin do today’s boycotting athletes, many of whom make more in a season than Jackie Robinson made in his entire professional career, have in the game?

True, the National Basketball Association and its players have made some useful commitments to advancing civic engagement and voter participation in this year’s elections. Perhaps other professional leagues will take similar initiatives. That’s relatively low-cost, however. And whatever price there is will be paid by the leagues, all of which are exceedingly well-heeled and can easily afford paid TV advertisements encouraging voter turnout, the use of arenas as polling places, and the display of slogans on fields, floors, and rinks. It’s not quite cheap grace. But it’s close enough that it should cause concern to those athletes who really want to make a difference.

So here’s a suggestion.

There are many barriers to success for underprivileged children in the United States, but one of the greatest is the poor performance of state-run schools in our inner cities, which are consistently outperformed by charter schools and Catholic schools (many of which educate a high percentage of non-Catholic students). This tragic disparity in educational and life outcomes has been demonstrated time and again, and by black scholars such as Thomas Sowell. Yet the teachers’ unions spend tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars a year badgering and trying to shut down better-performing charter schools, even as they fight fiercely against school choice in the form of scholarships or vouchers allowing parents to choose Catholic schools for their children — schools that emphasize character formation as well as academic skills, important as those are.

Catholic schools must charge tuition, however, so the playing field in American elementary education is uneven, unjust, and discriminatory. Catholic schools must depend on parents’ willingness to, in effect, tax themselves twice in order to pay tuition fees for schools that work. The state schools, by contrast, are funded lavishly by taxes paid by everyone (including the parents whose children they fail to serve well), and the union’s coffers are filled with contributions from the salaries of the teachers in those schools (which means that the unions’ lobbying against charter schools and school choice is, de facto, tax-supported). This is systemic injustice.

Catholic schools are in serious jeopardy right now because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn. High unemployment means a dramatic drop in the disposable income available to tuition-paying parents who want to choose a Catholic school for their children; and the charter schools can do only so much. Professional athletes wanting to get real skin in the justice game could do something about this.

Tens of millions of dollars would become instantly available if every professional athlete who declined to play last week would donate a boycotted game’s or games’ salary to league-managed funds in support of scholarship assistance to the parents of underprivileged children. The leagues would then partner with the local Catholic diocese in a given team’s geographic area to make those scholarship funds available to parents through the schools, which would be required to use the funds for scholarships and scholarships only. The leagues would donate their collection and distribution services, and the dioceses would pledge to make all monies received from the leagues and the athletes flow to the schools through their diocesan scholarship programs, or parish-based scholarship programs. No funds would be skimmed on the path between the athletes and children in need; all the donating athletes would know that they had actually helped someone who badly needed their support.

And for a year at last, the unjust playing field in American elementary education would be leveled a bit, and thus made more just.

Social justice in America takes many forms. Surely one of those forms is the good education that’s made available to underprivileged children whose parents choose Catholic schools for their children because they know from experience that those schools do better by their children. America’s professional athletes could offer a model for other social-justice warriors by getting real skin in the game and making scholarship money available to those parents and children.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His 27th book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, has just been published by Ignatius Press.

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