The Myth of the ‘Student-Athlete’

Gary Gutting
People often dismiss philosophical disputes as mere quibbles about words. But shifts in terminology can turn the tide in public debates. Think of the advantage Republicans gained when discussion of the Affordable Health Care Act became discussion of “Obamacare.” (Conversely, suppose we talked about “Bush-ed” instead of “No Child Left Behind”). Or consider how much thinking about feminism has changed with the demise of “men” as a term for people in general.
These thoughts about philosophy and language occur to me as a significant portion of our nation takes part in the mounting frenzy of “March Madness,” the national college basketball championship. Throughout the tournament, announcers and commentators careful enough to heed the insistence of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, will refer to the players as “student-athletes.”
But is this term accurate? Or should we perhaps leave it behind for a more honest and precise name?
The term “student-athletes” implies that all enrolled students who play college sports are engaged in secondary (“extra-curricular”) activities that enhance their education. Their status, the term suggests, is essentially the same as members of the debate team or the band. As the N.C.A.A. puts it, “Student-athletes must, therefore, be students first.”
There are, of course, many cases of athletes who are primarily students, particularly in “minor” (i.e., non-revenue producing) sports. But what about Division I football and men’s basketball, the big-time programs with revenues in the tens of millions of dollars that are a major source of their schools’ national reputation? Are the members of these teams typically students first?
The N.C.A.A.’s own 2011 survey showed that by a wide variety of measures the answer is no. For example, football and men’s basketball players (who are my primary focus here) identify themselves more strongly as athletes than as students, gave more weight in choosing their college to athletics than to academics, and, at least in season, spend more time on athletics than on their studies (and a large majority say they spend as much or more time on sports during the off-season).