By any measure, former Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is a poster child for what the National Collegiate Athletic Association says it stands for.
A projected first round NFL Draft pick last season, Stanley chose to forego becoming an instant millionaire in order to return to school to get his degree. He's majoring in business, with a focus on entrepreneurship—and despite flying around the country this spring to visit with NFL teams as a likely top 10 pick in this week's draft, he's still taking classes and working toward graduation.
But when I asked Stanley whether he endorses a NCAA system that he seemingly embodies, he was quick to denounce it.
"No, not even," he said, almost taken aback. "Not close, not at all."
During his four years as a "student-athlete," Stanley was subject to the association's amateurism rules, which purportedly exist to enable education and protect college athletes from economic exploitation. While he and his teammates generated millions in revenue for Notre Dame's athletic department—and saw their coaches earn large salaries and bonuses based on their performance—they weren't allowed to see any of the money beyond the sticker price of their scholarships.
Moreover, they weren't even permitted to accept any gifts from the hundreds of thousands of Notre Dame fans who shelled out big bucks to watch them play.
"I've not met one guy who thinks they've been compensated the way they should be for the amount of work we put in for these coaches that are getting paid so much, and for the university that gains so much off what we're doing," Stanley said. "Something as small as $1,000 a week is really nothing in the big scheme of things, but to the NCAA it's treason."
Now that his college athletic career is over, Stanley's world has changed. Or maybe just normalized. No longer is it treason for him to accept a gift. Now, his agent can pay for him to fly across the country to meet with NFL teams.
Last Friday, he got free tickets to a Rihanna concert and met her backstage. Just before that, he got to hang out with Victor Cruz and other NFL stars for a fun night out on the town.
"It's a great mix," Stanley said, noting that he's living the kind of life capitalism-obsessed Americans take for granted. "If you work hard, you should get treated accordingly."
Almost overnight, Stanley went from living under a trade-restraining, price-fixing economic dictatorship that has more in common with the old Soviet Union than the rest of the United States to the kind of life you'd expect for someone whose skills are worth millions.
"You feel free," Stanley said. "You feel like you can live a normal life. It's a weird feeling being part of the NCAA for that long and realizing all this stuff you could have been doing. They make you pay for everything yourself and whatnot. It was definitely a weird feeling. You definitely feel a lot more free. You don't have to worry about people buying you stuff, like you don't have to think about it at all."
The NCAA contends that athletes cannot receive endorsements and benefits, like Stanley now has, because it will distract them from their studies, even though those rules do not govern other college students who use their extracurricular talents to make money. A federal appellate court even bought some of this argument.
Yet by fulfilling the NCAA's oft-stated educational ideals, Stanley is a living, breathing case study—the kind you might read about in a Notre Dame business class—in why the association's reasoning for its amateurism restrictions makes no sense.
A top-rated recruit, Stanley could have gone almost anywhere in the country to play college football, but he focused on academically-challenging schools like Notre Dame and Stanford. He chose to sign with Roc Nation out of college because that agency allows him to keep the entrepreneurial spirit he cultivated in school, such as helping him buck athlete apparel sponsorship norms by signing with Zappos.
Even as he's accepting gifts and interviewing for a lucrative NFL job, Stanley is still choosing to go to school. And first-hand experience has taught him that there's no inherent contradiction between the two. He has money in his pocket, and he can still open a textbook.
"(School is) still something that you can be a part of and still get benefits," he said.
If anything, profiting from his football ability has enhanced Stanley's education, allowing him to connect his business and entrepreneurship courses to real world experience. And that, in turn, is teaching him that NCAA amateurism has little to do with education, and much to do with who gets what.
Forbes values Notre Dame football at $127 million. The Irish have a football-only television contract worth $15 million per season. 80,000 people fill Notre Dame stadium every Saturday. So when Notre Dame president John Jenkins claims the school would leave all of that money on the table and downgrade its football program if it were ever forced to let someone pay for Stanley's tickets to a Rihanna concert—under the guise of supporting academics—you can't blame Stanley for chuckling. "No, I don't think (that would happen)," he said.
The NCAA believes that its superficial focus on education will allow it to continue its exploitative practices, and for some reasons that's a good bet—elite athletes hoping to make the NFL have no choice but to play college football, and some segment of the public, including some federal judges, seems to believe that allowing players to keep a fair portion of what they earn on the field will harm them in the library. At the same time, the association's system is slowly-but-surely cultivating athletes who value education and are (ironically) putting what they learn to good use in the fight against amateurism. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, for example, was partially inspired to lead a team unionization effort by "Field Studies in the Modern Workplace," a class he took at the school.
"I like to be different, I like to think outside the box," Stanley said. "I don't like to be traditional just because it's been done a certain way for so long that it always needs to be done the same way. I like to think of alternatives."
That sounds like the kind of thinking colleges exist to incubate and encourage: forward-looking, tradition-challenging, intellectually restless, seeking to make things better and new. Naturally, Stanley was unable to fully explore it until he was no longer making money for Notre Dame.