That tiny hyphen that holds the label “student-athlete” together seems in danger of losing its original purpose. Coined in the 1950s, the term was meant to encapsulate the dual identities of students who play on college-sponsored athletic teams while also carrying a full academic load. In the decades since, college sports, especially football and basketball, have become multibillion-dollar businesses that also help brand a school. On many campuses the label has become little more than a charade for what is essentially an athlete.
The “gross commercial climate” of intercollegiate athletics has radically changed college sports, observed Walter Byers, who came up with the term student-athlete while serving as the NCAA’s executive director from 1951-1988. Today’s campuses have a “neo-plantation mentality” in which the “rewards belong to the overseers and the supervisors.”
Together the top 25 college teams generate $2.5 billion in revenue each year, with $1.4 billion in pure profit, says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, author of “Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport.”
But while top college coaches make millions of dollars in salaries, for example, athletes at best have a scholarship and ultimately a degree to show for their efforts. At the Power Five schools, the conferences with the top sports programs, the 4,400 coaches are paid more, in total, than the value of the scholarships given to their 45,000 athletes, says Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been studying the finances of college athletics. In addition, companies from shoemakers to online gambling sites benefit from sports played by unpaid athletes.
Scholarships can be seen as a form of payment, of course. But they can be a sham: Many players fail to earn degrees, in part because their days may be filled with athletic training and practice, leaving little time for academics.
Minority athletes have suffered the most. Black male athletes at the 65 colleges that make up the Power Five have a graduation rate 5% below other black male undergraduates and 21% below other students in general, reports the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.
Jay M. Smith, a history professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports,” calls collegiate athletics today a “fraud” and “shameful.” He proposes that it be “disassembled and rebuilt from scratch.”
Senator Murphy holds out hope that the voices of such critics will influence the NCAA to clean up its own house. The courts also could step in and determine that the NCAA is a monopoly in need of regulation. That might open the way for Congress to act – a last resort.
Other proposals try to avoid an unvarnished pay-for-play system that would remove any vestiges of amateurism. University of Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall argues that money could be put in a trust fund for players that they could receive only after graduation. He and others support the idea that players should be able to profit from personal endorsements, the value of their names and likenesses.
Among Senator Murphy’s other ideas: Insist colleges restore a real balance between the time athletes spend on sports and academics. Track more honestly and openly athletes’ academic progress toward degrees and study what happens to them after they leave.
College sports entertain millions of Americans. But that shouldn’t be at the cost of proper treatment of the athletes putting on the show.