A Reckoning for the Term “Student-Athlete”

When the NCAA coined the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s, it set in motion a propaganda machine that many scholars have taken shots at over the years.

Finally, in 2020, it looks like scholars, journalists and others are ready to retire this oppressive term.

In July, when I wrote a column for Diverse calling to Abolish the Term Student-Athlete, I hoped the spirit of social justice afoot might find room to take on this cause as well. When the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of my alma maters, said in August it would no longer use the term in its articles, I was heartened.

But when John Feinstein, a noted sports journalist, wrote about the term in Sunday’s Washington Post, social media lit up. And social media, it seems, has the power to make change. Since then, editors at Sports Illustrated have modernized their style guide and will no longer use the term student-athlete. In an email exchange, Ryan Hunt, Co-Editor-in-Chief of SI noted “it was an easy call” especially considering other neutral and contextually relevant alternatives. He and others at one of the leading sports journalism platforms support the recent push to end the use of the term.

Molly HarryMolly Harry

The change has been a long time in the making since Allen Sack and Ellen Staurowsky, who wrote about this issue in their 1998 book College Athletes for Hire, and later in the Journal of Sport Management in 2005.

The term at first seems innocuous, and some college athletes themselves embrace it, proud of their ability to manage both academics and athletics. But many athletes are unaware of the term’s long history; in the decades since the 1950s it has been used to classify athletes in a way that deprives them of some of the rewards of their athletic endeavors.

As stated in the July column, the term was coined in the 1950s by the NCAA president at the time and the Association’s legal team to avoid paying worker’s compensation to the widow of a football athlete who died after a game injury, while also preventing future generations of college athletes from receiving worker’s compensation or pay-for-play.

With linguistic sleight of hand, the NCAA public relations machine forced the term student-athlete into common usage. As students, athletes could not be employees, and therefore, were limited in the compensation they could receive outside of their athletic aid. The term is particularly embedded in athletes’ rights issues and court cases that seek to keep athletes from receiving additional financial support from an athletics enterprise that generates billions.

For example, as the Northwestern football team attempted to unionize in 2014, the term was consistently used by athletics leaders to convince the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the media that members of this unique student population were not employees. In its brief to the NLRB, the Big Ten proclaimed, “the student-athlete is student first, athlete second,” sidestepping the employee-like nature of being a college athlete.

The term was also used throughout other critical reform cases involving intercollegiate athletics, including O’Bannon v. NCAA, Jenkins v. NCAA, and most recently Alston v. NCAA.

Words matter, as the NCAA knew and as the NCAA’s first executive director Walter Byers understood, when he later disavowed the term he once supported. Once I became aware of the history of this term, I saw how entrenched it was and how effectively it worked to the NCAA’s advantage. One of the most eloquent treatments of the topic is by Staurowsky and Sack, who note that it helps perpetuate the power structure of college athletics. That power structure often leaves athletes at the bottom.

What to use instead? As I have noted in advocating for an athletics curriculum, we don’t call dance majors student-ballerinas or music majors student-violinists. Instead of student-athlete, why not use players or athletes?

Athletes have been elevating their voices throughout the summer, a move that will hopefully continue as sports start back up. Those who find the term disingenuous at best, oppressive at worst, can join scholars and journalists in this long overdue discussion and abolish this term.

Molly Harry is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia studying higher education with a focus on intercollegiate athletics and teaches the course Athletics in the University. Her research interests include education through athletics participation, academic reform for college athletics, and the college athlete experience.