Michael Arace: Money makes `student-athlete’ inaccurate
The year 2020 is a crack in time, like 1968 but with a global pandemic on top. Issues that have been building in pressure are now bursting through fissures, demanding more attention. Here is another ...
The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, earlier this month used editorial space to announce a change in style. It came under the headline, “The Daily Tar Heel will no longer use the term, ‘student-athlete.’ ”
The nut of their opinion is this: “At The Daily Tar Heel, we value accuracy. Language is part of that accuracy, and the way we use it shapes the way we as a society think and interact with the world. We feel the phrases ‘college athlete,’ ‘athlete,’ ‘player’ and ‘student’ portray more accurately that these athletes are students while simultaneously being professionals.”
The editorial explains the history of the phrase, which dates to the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers. “Student-athlete” was, the editorial says, “a nifty trick, promoting athletes above the rank of simple students to explain why they should be judged by a lower academic standard while simultaneously keeping them below the status of employees.”
The editorial is buttressed with sound reasoning. It points out that, before the coronavirus hit, the UNC athletic department projected to make $110 million in 2020-21. It posits that “student-athlete” does not jibe with this, and that the phrase is used as an excuse, more or less, to “avoid paying athletes, to control their name, image and the likeness rights and to deny them the ability to unionize.”
I wish I’d written that line.
Apparently, Sports Illustrated wished the same thing. The magazine’s copy chief tweeted that SI had been considering a similar change in style, for similar reasons, and would soon be eliminating the phrase “student-athlete.”
Three days later, The Daily Tar Heel ran a letter from the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, which said, in part:
“To preface ‘athlete’ with a hyphenated ‘student’ is a badge of honor we gladly accept. We take pride in our ability to excel in the classroom and on the field. Minimizing our identity to just ‘athletes’ or only ‘students’ is diminishing because we are so much more than just one or the other.”
Nuance is required here.
Former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones is infamous for tweeting, “we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” Jones is not as famous for returning to OSU to earn his degree.
The Daily Tar Heel understands the difference.
When Jones was quarterbacking a multimillion-dollar football program, he was a “college athlete” or an “athlete” or a “player” and not, by his own admission, a “student.” Hell, he had as much control of his study time as he did of the rights to his name, image and likeness rights. Ultimately, he became a “student” and got his degree. Good on him.
Ohio State’s athletic department brings in north of $200 million in a good year. These revenues, generated by young, unpaid players such as Jones once was, fund hundreds of others you might call “student-athletes” — those in non-revenue sports who might be called “amateurs.” There is a difference.
Perhaps the best way to make this distinction is to call big-time college football and basketball programs what they are: minor-league feeders for the NFL and NBA. The players know it. Big-time athletic directors and coaches can speak winsomely about “student-athletes” and they may even believe in the notion. But graduation rates are not more important than the bottom line. Any lawyer who represents a big-time coach or big-time AD will tell you that.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12 did the right thing when they canceled their fall sports seasons. They put the health of their athletes first and, with no football, will pay a steep cost for it.
It is one thing to have clusters of coronavirus cropping up among students who are ignoring protocols for mass gatherings, it is quite another thing to submit big-time athletes to undue risk, all for the sake of maintaining the high standards of living for big-time coaches and administrators.
The SEC, ACC and Big 12 are a mess right now. Last week, UNC reacted to 130 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by reverting to online classes. And the football players got back to practice. Meanwhile, at Alabama, 531 cases were confirmed and the school president threatened suspensions for students who violated safety protocols. And the football players practiced. At Syracuse, 23 students were suspended for partying in close quarters. And the football players practiced.
There is a difference.