As Congress, the courts and state legislatures re-examine the definition of amateurism in college sports, another concept at the heart of the enterprise is being reconsidered: the term “student-athlete.”

To many college athletes, it is a fitting descriptor, given the demanding dual roles they juggle.

Others view it as outmoded or an outright myth, given the roughly $3 billion in annual revenue that players generate for their schools, conferences and the NCAA.

The term is under heightened scrutiny in light of a recent memo by National Labor Relations Board general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo in which she outlined her view that certain college athletes are employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

In it, Abruzzo referred to the term “student-athlete” as a “misclassification” that leads college athletes to believe they are not entitled to legal protection under the act. Moreover, she wrote, it has a “chilling effect,” and its use may, in itself, violate the act.

Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, interprets the Sept. 29 memo, which is not legally binding, as a signal of a widening perception that the NCAA’s system is unfair to college athletes and a warning that unless the organization makes significant reforms, the government may do so.

As for Abruzzo’s rejection of the term “student-athlete,” Feldman calls it “another example of people believing that the student-athlete moniker is inaccurate, at best, and potentially harmful.”

The term was coined by the NCAA in the 1950s to counter any claim that college athletes were employees and entitled to workers’ benefits, such as compensation if injured on the job. It proved persuasive in a death-benefits claim filed by the widow of Ray Dennison, a Fort Lewis A&M lineman whose skull was shattered during a 1955 football game. Dennison died as a result. The claim was denied.

Over the decades since, the term has become embedded in the public consciousness — widely used without awareness of its origin.

“It was created in large part in response to litigation and to prevent employee status,” Feldman says. “Whether its continued use is intended to reflect that designation depends on who is using it and how.”

Walter Byers, the NCAA’s first executive director whose 36-year tenure spanned the term’s coinage and vigorous promotion, disavowed its use in his 1995 memoir “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”

Nonetheless, the NCAA continues to promote its use via its rule book, committee names and official communications, as do conferences and athletic departments. The term appears four times in the NCAA’s two-sentence definition of the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s purpose: “Student-athletes have a voice in the NCAA through advisory committees at the campus, conference, and national level. Each committee is made up of student-athletes assembled to provide insight on the student-athlete experience and offer input on the rules, regulations and policies that affect student-athletes’ lives on campus.”

The NCAA’s response to the NLRB’s memo notably did not use the term “student-athlete.”

In July 2020, Molly Harry, a Virginia doctoral candidate who teaches an undergraduate course, Athletics in the University, called for its abolition in higher-education magazine Diverse, linking it to the broader movement on many college campuses to dismantle oppressive symbols, statutes and language in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

“If we can work to rid higher education of racist athletics building names, mascots, and logos, we can abolish this demeaning and degrading term designed to subdue this unique student population,” Harry wrote.

The following month, North Carolina’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, announced it would no longer use the term, writing that it was designed to place student-athletes in a “no man’s land between student and employee” yet detached from either reality and that it “doesn’t truthfully describe an athlete’s role on campus.”

Yet “we, the student-athletes of the ACC” is how student representatives of the 15 member schools opened their September letter to the Senate Commerce Committee requesting a federal standard for the patchwork of state laws governing their ability to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness.

“Student-athlete” is both the moniker bestowed upon them as members of the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the term they are comfortable with, said Sydney Knapp, a fifth-year varsity swimmer and graduate student at Miami who co-authored the letter.

“We never thought twice about using this term student-athlete,” Knapp said. “Also, part of why we wrote this letter is to preserve the college model. We’re not advocating for pay-for-play out of this. We want to preserve this model that reinforces ‘student-athlete.’ To that end, using the term student-athlete was not necessary but rightly fit into what we were advocating in that regard.”

On a personal level, Knapp said, she embraces the term because she feels she and her Miami teammates, who train 20 hours per week most of the year, have distinguished themselves as more than a “college athlete.”

“We have girls on the team who have 8 a.m. classes. We train from 6 to 8 every morning, so these girls will get out of the pool soaking wet in the middle of a set at 7:52 to run across campus while trying to not miss a single moment of practice to get to class, sit there for an hour and a half, only to go home, eat quickly and come back to another practice in the afternoon for two more hours,” Knapp said. “I would say that they pretty firmly believe they are student-athletes.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 3½ years, Knapp completed a master’s degree in international administration and is pursuing a second master’s in liberal studies while competing and serving as a student leader and athlete advocate.

“I would say that a majority of people who play a competitive sport under the NCAA in college do ascribe to the student-athlete model, even in the realm of football and men’s basketball,” Knapp said.

Feldman, the Tulane law professor, said he feels the term remains an apt descriptor for college athletes who compete in Olympic sports and at Division II and III schools, which are not commercial enterprises on the scale of Football Bowl Subdivision and Division I basketball players. Nonetheless, he has dropped the term in favor of “college athlete,” which he deems more neutral.

Harry said she began using the terms “varsity athlete,” “college athlete” or “athlete” in her writing, teaching and conversation after learning the NCAA’s agenda behind “student-athlete” while doing research for her master’s degree at North Carolina.

She discusses its origin in her class, which includes many Cavaliers athletes, and typically gets a mixed reaction. Some are surprised by the revelation, she said; others are unfazed.

Harry said she doesn’t foist a particular view on her students but believes they should know the term’s history.

“It was designed to prevent payment to athletes and went through this phase of becoming an almost endearing term for some people,” she said. “Of course, it is a very prideful term for many college athletes, and I understand 100 percent that they should take great pride. They are doing something very few people will ever achieve in their lifetime.

“... But we’re not saying: Hey, look at that student-chemist! Or the student-microbiologist! That ‘student’ identity is inherent in all the students walking on campus. Why, then, do we have to place the ‘student’ in front of the athlete?”

In Feldman’s view, phasing out use of the term would be a sign of progress. Yet the gesture would be hollow, he believes, without substantive change in an NCAA status quo that is increasingly viewed by the courts, Congress and advocates as fundamentally unfair to the college athletes who are filling the organization’s coffers.

“Changing from ‘student-athlete’ to ‘college athlete’ or whatever the preferred term could end up being performative and would be a mistake,” Feldman said, “unless the change is accompanied by actually providing greater rights and protections for college athletes.”

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