Stop using the phrase “student-athletes”

Eric Murphy — University alumnus

The NCAA and most Division I universities do not care about their athletes. The aftermath of the Duke and Louisville basketball game this past weekend in which Louisville player Kevin Ware gruesomely broke his leg threw the NCAA’s uncaring attitude into stark relief.

A typical employee in a typical job is entitled to workers’ compensation to make up for missed wages when injured on the job. But Ware and other “student-athletes” are not entitled to this (or any other compensation) because the NCAA took specific action decades ago designed to deny their athletes  due compensation. Many players, potentially including Ware, wind up unable to pay hospital bills or remain uncompensated for future loss of wages caused by their injury — because the NCAA refuses to treat them as employees.

As Robert and Amy McCormick explain in their 2006 paper “The Myth of the Student Athlete,” the NCAA made up the term “student-athlete” in response to a 1953 Colorado Supreme Court decision, University of Denver v. Nemeth, that a University of Denver athlete qualified as an “employee” under the state’s workers’ compensation statute; therefore ,his widow was entitled to workers’ compensation and death benefits for his football injuries. Similar to the McCormicks’ paper, Taylor Branch reports in his 2011 article published in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,”  that the NCAA responded with a vigorous public relations campaign that mandated their players be called “student-athletes” and that this term be used repeatedly in legal defenses.

This strategy was hugely cynical and hugely successful. The McCormicks come to a damning conclusion: “The NCAA purposely created the term ‘student-athlete’ as propaganda, solely to obscure the reality of the university-athlete employment relationship and to avoid universities’ legal responsibilities as employers. In the ensuing fifty years, the NCAA, colleges and universities have profited immensely from the vigorous defense and preservation of this myth.”

Given the specific history and meaning of the phrase “student-athlete,” it has no place in the Minnesota Daily’s pages outside of a direct quotation. Rather than being an objective descriptor, “student-athlete” has a specific legal meaning, a specific promotional purpose and makes a contested claim about a player’s status. While the Daily’s sports section does a good job of covering each Gophers team as it would a professional team, usually using the term “player,” sports and the newsroom (in coverage about, for example, athletes’ graduation rates) should commit to no longer using “student-athlete” as a neutral phrase.

In an ideal world, I could also make the same request of the University of Minnesota’s athletics department and athletics director Norwood Teague (whose base salary is $400,000, compared to the $0 salary of those who produce the product that allows him to be paid). But of course I’d have to be crazy to think that an organization greedy enough to skim millions in profits from exploiting the unpaid labor of its players would ever voluntarily jeopardize such a beneficial arrangement.

The campaign for NCAA players to get justice from their employer has to begin with the destruction of the NCAA-created and self-serving myth that players do not deserve the protections or compensation that we afford to typical employees, a myth which has enriched the NCAA and athletics departments across the country — at the expense of players — for decades. This myth has been perpetuated by NCAA’s creation of the insidious phrase “student-athlete,” created for specific legal and promotional purposes, a phrase that those not actively pursuing those purposes should henceforth eliminate from their vocabulary.