‘This is a job’: Why college players reject the insidious term ‘student athlete’

As the world of college sports finds itself in uncertain times, Danté Stewart is clear about one thing.

“Nothing about college athletics suggests that being a student comes first. Così, that language needs to be changed,” says Stewart, a former Clemson football player. “The ‘student-athlete’ is always being limited to being a student rather than a worker.”

Stewart is not alone. Nel mese di settembre, Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), issued a memo in which she argued that college athletes should be understood as university employees. Abruzzo took direct aim at the NCAA’s use of the term “student-athlete,” arguing that it has been used to undermine college athletes organizing for employment rights.

“It allows people outside to limit your identity,” adds Stewart. “So people can say you’re just there for athletics. You are seen as someone who should be grateful. You have no say. You’re a student. ‘Student’ is wrapped up in you’re young, you’re dumb, and you need guidance. It strips your agency.”

Objections to the term “student-athlete” are unsurprising given its origins. Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA from 1951-1987 explained in his memoir: “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.”

The NCAA subsequently used the term for decades in court to counter workers’ compensation claims related to athletes who died or suffered grievous injury while providing athletic services to universities. Byers himself would later call the NCAA system “a nationwide money-laundering scheme,” and proclaimed that “the management of intercollegiate athletics stays in place committed to an outmoded code of amateurism … and I attribute that to, quite frankly, per the neo-plantation mentality that exists on the campuses of our country and in the conference offices of the NCAA.”

It is in this context that Abruzzo wrote in her memo that because college athletes “are employees under the Act, misclassifying them as ‘student-athletes’, and leading them to believe that they are not entitled to the Act’s protection, has a chilling effect,” and thus, “I will pursue an independent violation.” Since the memo, the NLRB has already received a filing against the NCAA for use of the term.

Despite this, the NCAA recently released a draft of its new constitution, to be voted on in January, that uses the term “student-athlete” 44 volte. It also explicitly clarified that “student-athletes may not be compensated by a member institution for participating in a sport.” Which is to say, when it comes to the $18.9bn generated annually by NCAA universities, that money will not be finding its way into the wallets of the workers who generate it.

Perhaps most remarkably, the NCAA justified the use of “student-athlete” in its new constitution by contending that it was at the “insistence” of the three athlete representatives on the committee of 23. Infatti, secondo Daniel Libit’s reporting, Kendall Spencer, a former track and field athlete at New Mexico, said that there was “wide consensus among the thousands of current and former college athletes his group consulted that the term did more good than harm.”

That claim has raised the ire of some college athletes.

“I wonder who they consulted in terms of ‘student-athletes’ to determine that consensus,” mused Jason, a current player player in the power five, the elite level of college football. “The types of individuals that serve in these groups align with the NCAA’s viewpoint rather than that of the majority of their peers.” Or, as Damion, a former power five football player put it, “The SAAC members and that selection process, that’s all selected by the coaching staff. That’s not a fair representation of everyone else’s opinions.”

We talked to 13 current and former players about their reactions to the claim they support the term “student-athlete.” Many athletes we spoke to chose to do so anonymously out of fear of reprisal and have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities. As one athlete explained: “As sad as it sounds I don’t want any backlash from it. I’m still living in their world and they do have control over us.”

Not everyone objected to the term. James, a former power five football player, told us, “The term ‘student-athlete’ was something that I felt was a badge of honor.” That was important, he explained, because “it’s almost as if you have two full time jobs …people that went through that kind of rigorous workload, there is a lot of pride associated with it.”

Brittany Collens, a former UMass tennis player, understands. “‘Student-athlete’ is a term many athletes are proud to embrace not because of what the system offers but as a term recognizing the sacrifice they have made to distinguish themselves apart from others. It’s meant to be a badge of honor.”

What they reveal is how the exploitation of carrying “two full time jobs” with no pay is almost necessarily internalized as a “badge of honor” – which is to say form of identity – because it allows them to cope with the demands. This is at least in part a function of the fact that there is no external recourse through which to process and express these feelings of overwork. Emma, a current division one cross country and track and field athlete, puts it this way, “Even if we athletes are not being compensated, we crave the validation and fulfillment we get from playing the game to the point that we are willing to overlook the nonsensical conditions of our work … As much as the term ‘student-athlete’ is used to mislead us, it also serves to make us feel better.”

That, a sua volta, is related to the reality that most college athletes are not offered a window into the historical and legal implications of the term.

Andrew Cooper, the co-organizer of #WeAreUnited and United College Athlete Advocates, told us that many athletes “have no idea that the NCAA invented the term ‘student-athlete’ nearly 70 years ago to avoid paying workers’ compensation and how the NCAA leverages it to justify their tax-evasion scheme.” Collens adds, “It’s widely endorsed by college athletes because they don’t understand the implications behind the word.”

That isn’t a coincidence. Universities condition athletes to view the term as a marker of pride divorced from its more insidious applications. As Mikayla, a former division one gymnast, puts it, “athletes are brainwashed from a young age that it’s an honor to be called a ‘student-athlete.’”

Emma explains that we can only understand the perspective of college athletes in the context of “the constant deluge of propaganda from school athletic departments.” What that means is that she “can count on receiving an email from my school’s athletic department every day,” that details academic responsibilities. Moreover, “we have always had to have team meetings with our school compliance officer and athletic director…two hours of being told what an honor it is to be an athlete for the university, how we have such great privilege and responsibility compared to regular students, and a very long list of things we cannot, should not, absolutely will never do because we need to be the perfect representatives of the university. It can be difficult to escape that mindset.”

Given that context, it is little wonder that many of the athletes we talked were surprised about the origins of the term. Luis, a current group of five football player put it this way, “everyone wants to be a ‘student-athlete’ because that is all we knew and were taught to be. We were never taught the real reason for being shielded away from aid and benefits.”

Nearly all the players we spoke to objected to the inclusion of “student-athlete” in the new constitution. Florida Atlantic University football player Andrew Boselli said that “it reduces the rights of college athletes and hides their actual role.” For Luis, “it’s misleading because we are employees. Without us athletes there is no NCAA.” Mikayla added, “the term continues to be used in marketing and in commercials to make the NCAA seem more virtuous than it is.” Former Nebraska golfer Daniel Pearson put it plainly: “the term could not be further from the truth.”

Similarly, Jalen, a current power five football player, explained, “I feel like there should be a better term to use or expand the meaning of ‘student-athlete’ to be closer to ‘employee.’” For Jason, the issue is that he believes “the majority of ‘student-athletes’ do not agree that they are simply students who happen to participate in an extra-curricular activity … It is unquestionable that they are actually employees.” This is why Gavin, a current power five football player, sees the term as “very misleading.” He explained, “Athletics are the priority, and everything else comes second. Schools are more concerned with keeping players eligible, rather than maximizing their academic opportunities.”

Collens was even more forceful: “college athletes do want to be ‘student-athletes’ but they want to be the student athletes the NCAA organization promised them they would be. Not what the reality is. If they understood what it means they wouldn’t want that terminology to represent them. That’s like saying they want to be held from their rights. They’re being fooled through no fault of their own.”

For former Clemson football player Stewart, addressing the problem means addressing the very issue of what it means to be a student in the context of college athletics. “I know people who were athletes and wanted to be students but had to settle short because the classes they wanted to be in got in the way of the athletic demands of the school.”

That mirrored Mikayla’s experience. “Athletes cannot always change degrees if and when they have an interest change, their course loads are all too often decided by what makes them eligible, and class selection is based on what’s available outside of team obligations. That’s not putting the student first. Neither is missing approximately twelve class days per year to travel, compete and represent the university.”

In Pearson’s experience, “The daily grind includes waking up before the sun for workouts, managing to go to class before or after a long practice, finding time to go to the trainer, to eat, and then maybe deciding to do homework if you can possibly keep your eyes open at that point.”

Former UCLA soccer player Kaiya McCullough agrees. “Using the term ‘student-athlete’ frames the discussion of the role of college athletes away from what it is, employmentThe reality is that these young athletes are being used for their labor to make money for their respective colleges and the NCAA. Many times in my own career as a college athlete I was forced to make sacrifices in my education for the sake of soccer, as that was the true priority for my time in school. Framing the discussion away from this reality is just another tool the NCAA uses to keep athletes from realizing their worth as employees.”

One of the consequences of not treating athletes as employees is, unlike their coaching and administrator counterparts, they do not have the freedom to seek out opportunities to capitalize on market value. As Damion explained it, unlike players, “From a coach’s perspective, they can pick up, go, and make two times their money and walk out … that just happened with Lincoln Riley at USC."

With all this in mind, “the real question is whether the NCAA is willing to rethink what they mean by student and athlete,” said Stewart.

And that question cannot reasonably be understood without reckoning with the dynamics of the highest-revenue forms of college sport. Given that in the power five conferences, as of the 2019-2020 stagione, Black students comprised only 5.7% of the student population, it is notable that they made up 55.9% of men’s basketball players, 55.7% of men’s football, e 48.1% of women’s basketball players.

For Stewart, these figures have everything to do with the persistent use of the term ‘student-athlete’. “When people talk about student athletes they’re not talking about white men, they’re talking about Black men," lui dice. “If it was centered on white men, they wouldn’t mind paying them. But because it’s wrapped up in race dynamics, people will always reject it because they don’t want Black athletes to have control and power, because they don’t think they deserve it.”

From the moment Walter Byers and company invented it, the term ‘student-athlete” has always functioned as an instrument of racialized exploitation. Campus athletic workers are starting to notice.

As Gavin put it, “It is silly to try and pretend that we function as regular students who simply participate in an extracurricular activity.

“This is a job.”

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