In its draft of a new constitution released earlier this week, the NCAA relinquished the use of the word “amateur”—and all its unpaid cognates—but doubled down on another increasingly contentious turn of phrase.
The term “student-athlete” appears 44 times in the national governing body’s proposed decree to govern less, while still asserting itself as the conservator of keeping college athletes. The new constitution will be voted on at the next NCAA convention in January.
The term “student-athlete”—coined by the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers, for the explicit purpose of having schools avoid providing athletes workers’ compensation benefits—has received renewed attention in recent years, as college athlete rights have gained public attention.
In a statement, NCAA spokesperson Michelle Hosnick said the committee tasked with drafting the constitution ultimately maintained the use of “student-athlete” at the “insistence” of the three athletes who served on the 23-member panel: Kendall Spencer, Madeleine McKenna and Megan Koch.
Spencer, a former track and field athlete at New Mexico, told Sportico that there was wide consensus, among the thousands of current and former college athletes the group consulted, that the term did more good than harm. (Efforts to reach McKenna and Koch were unsuccessful.)
“That branding, that title, that responsibility—it comes from a lot and means a lot,” said Spencer. “Student-athletes want to be ‘student-athletes.’”
However, not every athlete advocate took kindly to the continued use of a phrase that even Byers came to disown.
In his 1995 book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, Byers lamented: “We crafted the term student athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes…I suppose none of us wanted to accept what was really happening behind the scenes.”
Byers explained that by the 1950s, as more schools were offering athletic scholarships, state officials across the country were moving to grant athletes employee protections on the basis that they were receiving remuneration in exchange for their services. The NCAA viewed this trend as catastrophic to its model.
Byers’ word play proved effective, initially in court cases involving college athlete rights and, in due course, “student-athlete” burrowed deep into the college sports subconscious until Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch dredged it up in 2010 for his seminal trashing of the NCAA. Amid the push for college athletes to profit from their skills has been a corresponding effort, from both activists and journalists, to ditch a piece of perceived propaganda.
Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, says the rhetorical employment of “student-athlete” signifies that the NCAA is “not to be trusted.”
“That term is how the NCAA attempts to justify its violation of labor, antitrust laws, and civil rights laws to exploit college athletes,” said Huma, a former football player at UCLA. “The fact that it uses ‘student-athlete’ throughout its proposed constitution after being warned not to by the [National Labor Relations Board] General Counsel signals that it is doubling down on all of its illegal activities.”
In September, the government agency’s top lawyer, Jennifer Abruzzo, issued a memorandum of “updated guidance” that specifically called out the use of “student-athlete” as a mechanism for “misclassifying” the employee status of college athletes.
Abruzzo cited the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston, which she wrote “rejected the NCAA’s antitrust defense based in the notion of amateurism in college athletics.”