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In fact, the phrase “student-athlete” disguises and sustains a brutal system of indenture. In the exchange that occurs between athlete and university, the ivory tower makes off like a bandit. Athletes receive an often illusory prize: in-kind wages called scholarships and financial aid that quite obviously cost universities nothing — athletic scholarships, after all, are just the transfer of funds from one budget (athletic) to another (academic). For athletes, the exchange involves the surrender of the value produced by their talent, even as they take on enormous and undisclosed risk.
The exchange also constitutes a systematic racial transfer of wealth. At Power Five schools, Black students make up only 6 percent of the student body — but they comprise a majority of men’s basketball and football players. The economists Ted Tatos and Hal Singer estimate that universities extract $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion per year from Black campus athletic workers.
Nearly everyone who studies these issues — from college athlete advocates to Supreme Court justices to the National Labor Relations Board — condemns the NCAA’s and universities’ exploitation of these players. Given the enormous (and enormously overdue) public attention on these problems in recent months, it’s time to re-evaluate the ugly history of the phrase “student-athlete.”
The camouflage that enabled this long con was the concept of “amateurism,” a 19th-century European import that reflected the old world’s lingering aristocratic contempt for labor and laborers. (The concept would also infuse the modern Olympic movement, another European invention of the late 19th century.) The early leaders of college athletics embraced the amateurism ideal with gusto — in part because it proved so unexpectedly lucrative.
The invention of the term student-athlete in the 1950s was the culmination of a century-long con, the purpose of which was to enrich universities by denying basic rights to students.
Universities’ commitment to “amateur” athletics made hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance foundational elements of college sports. Everyone involved in the enterprise — from presidents and faculty committees to coaches, students, and the founders of the NCAA — knew that hotly recruited athletes would be compensated. A particularly striking example is James Hogan, an Irish immigrant and one of Yale’s great football stars in the early 20th century. As detailed in Ronald A. Smith’s The Myth of the Amateur, Hogan received not only tuition, room, and board but also a comfortable stipend, a portion of the gate from Yale baseball, a paid vacation to Cuba during his senior year, and — most breathtaking — an exclusive cigarette franchise for American Tobacco products sold on the Yale campus. Students called them “Hogan’s cigarettes.”
Yale was not alone. The legendary football coach Pop Warner, who coached Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was known to make “loans” and “expense payments” to his players at the end of each year. He recruited ringers who never enrolled in classes and arranged for many players, including Thorpe, to play professional baseball during the summers — before coming back to campus in the fall to play “amateur” college football. At the University of Pittsburgh, players on the powerhouse football team expected to be paid so well that they went on strike in 1937, refusing to play in the Rose Bowl because they were dissatisfied with the terms of their contracts. The system ran on bold-faced hypocrisy: Colleges touted the purity of amateur athletics from on high, while funneling cash and other benefits to players under the table.
Eventually, the system’s underbelly became visible to the public. Varying compensation practices and unseemly backbiting among colleges created the appearance of widespread corruption. In the mid-1950s, a series of scandals rocked the Pacific Coast Conference, eventually destroying it. Hoping to avoid further PR disasters, the NCAA sought in 1956 to standardize the compensation to which athletes would be entitled. Executive Director Walter Byers instituted the new practice of awarding scholarships “for athletic talent and without regard for need” — and threw in $15 per week in “laundry money” to boot. The goal was finally to end the scandalous competition for recruits that had so sullied make-believe amateurism.
At the same time, the NCAA concocted the term student-athlete and imposed it as what Byers called a “mandated substitute” for words like “players” and “athletes” in the college sports lexicon. With this rhetorical sleight-of-hand, Byers hoped to provide the system with a more effective “academics first” disguise. In his searing retrospective, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, Byers admitted to this evasion. He had coined the phrase “student-athlete,” he wrote, in order to dodge a worker’s compensation claim for the death of a college football player.
The revised constitution claims that the mission of college sport will be to create an environment in which universities retain a “primary emphasis” on college athletes’ academic experience. Thus colleges are barred from directly compensating athletes, but may provide them with “educational benefits” — a nifty sleight-of-hand, disguising wages as an in-kind education benefit. Even if such a deal were acceptable — would auto workers accept the dictate that their compensation come in the form of a jelly-of-the-month club? — it hardly works on its own terms.
Athletes receive a desiccated version of the education provided to their peers — particularly in the revenue sports of Power Five men’s football and basketball. The institutions themselves acknowledge that they have ceded control over scheduling to television. In their formal letters of intent, athletes pledge to miss class for athletic pursuits. Choosing challenging majors becomes practically impossible; students are all-too-often clustered in classes perceived by campus advising offices to be less onerous. Coaches often receive bonuses for athlete academic performance. Fraud and cheating have followed so often that it is a matter of when, not where. There’s no getting around the structural reality: For students working full time to receive education-as-wage in a college sport, academics come second.
Even as universities and the NCAA force athletes to accept that an educational benefit is sufficient wage compensation for their talent (it is not), these athletes are producing an outrageous amount of revenue. That revenue goes to everyone else. The NCAA is now a billion-dollar annual monopsony. Thirty-seven public universities earn at least $100 million in revenue per year, the top three over $200 million. A significant chunk of that cash goes to football coaches, 54 of whom receive at least $3 million per year. Many are the highest-paid public employees in their states of residence.
The NCAA also routinely contradicts one of the basic premises of its own draft constitution. It claims the primacy of “Student-Athlete Well-Being,” but as long as the NCAA and universities circumvent the basic reality that their players are workers — workers with serious health exposures — health and safety will be little more than a rhetorical flourish. In the case of football, these employees generate hundreds of millions of dollars in value participating in an inherently and potentially permanently harmful form of labor. There can be no assurance of “physical and mental health and safety” because the game is not neurologically viable. For universities — supposedly dedicated to nurturing young minds — this represents a moral catastrophe.
That threat has apparently resulted in a collective yawn from NCAA officials, even though an advocacy group for college basketball players has already filed a labor complaint with the NLRB. A recent press release from an organization of Division I athletic directors proclaimed that 85 percent of their membership are “highly concerned” about how union rights for athletes might produce “benefits and protections such as the rights to organize, strike, overtime pay, minimum wage, health and safety protections.”
Let “health and safety protections” sink in. This is what is colloquially referred to as saying the quiet part out loud.
The NCAA no longer even attempts to square rhetoric with reality: All that’s left now is a transparent struggle between exploitation and justice. Universities and the NCAA have a simple choice between right and wrong. History tells us what they will choose.
Faculty members can help reverse the tide. They can explain to their classes how the NCAA exploits and hurts students — and ultimately kills some of them. They can force the issues through shared governance, insisting on the obvious: College athletes are, in fact, campus athletic workers. These talented individuals deserve pay from their employers. They deserve occupational health and safety protections commensurate with their exceptionally dangerous lines of work. They deserve a say in determining their working conditions.
It’s time to pull the NCAA and college presidents back into reality. It’s time to scrap the term student-athlete and give these workers a fair deal.
Editors’ Note: Stephen T. Casper is retained by plaintiffs as an expert medical historian in concussion litigation pending against the NCAA.