The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NCAA uses ‘student-athlete’ as a weapon. Some college journalists just stripped it away.

North Carolina Coach Roy Williams poses with graduate transfers Justin Pierce (32) and Christian Keeling in October. (Gerry Broome/AP)

I have had many heroes in journalism, from men and women I looked up to as a young reporter to colleagues I read and learned from as I got older.

Now I have a new group of heroes, all of them many years younger than me: the staff of the Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina’s student newspaper.

Last week, the editors of the Tar Heel informed the world they would no longer use the heinous phrase “student-athlete.” They pointed out that their own school had run a scam for 20 years that allowed athletes (and others) to take “paper classes,” courses that involved almost no work for students but that allowed them to remain eligible as athletes. And they noted — correctly — that the term “student-athlete” has been used for years by college administrators, coaches and (sadly) some in the media as a barrier to the notion that college athletes should be compensated for the work they do — and for the millions of dollars they help generate for their schools.

“To accept the term ‘student athlete’ is to accept the … agenda that these athletes are not employees,” the editors wrote.

Bless them. Soon after, Julie Kliegman, the copy chief at Sports Illustrated, tweeted that, following in the Daily Tar Heel’s footsteps, SI would no longer use the phrase, either. According to Kliegman, the issue had already been on the publication’s radar, and the student editorial was a tipping point.

In an email Tuesday, Kliegman wrote, “Our editors-in-chief, Steve Cannella and Ryan Hunt, both agreed immediately when I proposed dropping the term and linked them to the [Daily Tar Heel] story.”

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I hope that other media outlets will follow those examples. Why?

For all the reasons cited by the kids at UNC. The term is used over and over by those in college leadership positions to suggest that big-time football and basketball players are spending as much time reading textbooks as playbooks. This, in an era when elite basketball stars only bother going to college for one year — after which the rules allow them to enter the NBA draft — and when football players can’t wait for their required three-year servitude to end so they can take a shot at the NFL.

There’s nothing wrong with young athletes aspiring to play pro ball. But let’s call them what they are: players. Period.

If you want more proof of that, look at what is happening on North Carolina’s flagship campus this week. Rapid spread of the novel coronavirus forced the school to pivot to all-remote instruction, with the expectation that “the majority of our current undergraduate residential students” will head home. Athletes, though, will remain. The plan is still to play football this fall, and the school put out all sorts of statements about how it believes its “student-athletes” can remain on campus, play football and stay safe, even as its other students scatter. Even now, the most hypocritical phrase in sports continues to pour out of the mouths of the so-called grown-ups.

“Student-athletes? Amateurism?? Or employee?” North Carolina basketball player Armando Bacot Jr. asked in response to a tweet about college students moving home while athletes remain.

Several years ago, I had lunch with NCAA President Mark Emmert. It was scheduled in large part because I had been critical of Emmert on a number of issues and had requested the chance to interview him so he could respond. He suggested lunch when he came to Washington on a lobbying trip.

We covered a number of topics, and then I brought up the term “student-athlete,” which Emmert, like so many in college sports, has used as a hammer to try to prove that football players and men’s basketball players are true amateurs.

“What’s wrong with calling them players?” I asked.

“I want to differentiate between them and professional athletes,” he answered.

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That had been the intent of Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, when he began using the term in the 1970s. He didn’t want anyone getting the idea that college players should be paid in any way.

It was Ken Denlinger, the late, great Washington Post columnist, who began referring to “semi-amateur hoops” when writing about college basketball, his point being that those playing at big-time, big-money schools may not have been getting paid (at least over the table) but were still a long way from being either amateurs or normal college students.

As it became more and more apparent that the players who show up on television most often were frequently students in name only, and as the money raked in by colleges kept growing, the industry’s leaders became ever more insistent about the terminology. For years, the NCAA ran so-called public service announcements during telecasts to promote the “student-athlete” myth. The one I remember best had a swimmer winning his race, jumping out of the pool, putting on clothes and playing the cello. Typical student-athlete, was the message.

President Trump, in his recent plea to play college football this fall, also referred to “student-athletes,” even though the context of his tweet had absolutely nothing to do with school and everything to do with athletics.

When I pointed out to Emmert that “student-athlete” was somewhat redundant — since the athletes are, by the NCAA’s definition, students — I got his attention.

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“How about if I call them college athletes?” he said. I told him I would prefer “players” but that “college athletes” was an improvement. For a while, he was as good as his word. That year, in his scripted welcome to fans at the Final Four, he referred to the hard work of all the “college athletes” who would be playing that day.

But since then, Emmert has reverted to “student-athletes,” even as the name, image and likeness controversy has brought us closer to players being allowed to make some money while still in college.

Now, at a moment when players are increasingly organizing and voicing their opinions, when Congress is introducing legislation designed to give athletes the right to make money off their names and images, it took a bunch of college kids to point out the hypocrisy of the “student-athlete” term to their elders.

As with so much of the NCAA, it reminds me yet again of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” While the adults gawked at the naked emperor, it was a child who blurted out the truth.

The term “student-athletes” has been a naked hypocrisy for years, used by the media and others to promote absurd myths dreamed up by the emperors of college athletics.

Let’s hail the kids at the Daily Tar Heel for pointing out the truth.

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