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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Staurowsky and Sack on the Use of the Term Student-Athlete

Monday, November 15, 2010

Staurowsky and Sack on the Use of the Term Student-Athlete

In “Reconsidering the Use of the Term Student-Athlete in Academic Research (Journal of Sport Management, Vol. 19, 205) Staurowsky and Sack argue for discontinuance of the term “student-athlete” by scholars who write about high school and college sports.  They also argue for the adaption of the Drake Group’s proposals that are designed to treat college athletes like other students.  They begin by tracking the history of the term “student-athlete.”
In order to appreciate the importance of this revelation, one must examine the events that led to the creation of the term itself. The stated purpose of the NCAA, from its inception in 1906, has been to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and athletes as an integral part of the student body (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2003). The NCAA’s early opposition to athletic scholarships reflected this concern, that athletes be regular students rather than skilled athletic specialists recruited and subsidized primarily on the basis of athletic ability. Much to the NCAA’s credit, it remained steadfast to this fundamental amateur principle for the first 50 years of its existence. By the 1950s, however, the pressures of rampant commercialism and the widespread practice of paying the educational and living expenses of athletes in defiance of the NCAA’s amateur code led the NCAA to reverse its position on athletic scholarships. This decision represents a watershed in the history of collegiate sport in America and can be viewed as the first of a number of NCAA rule changes that have made scholarship athletes virtually indistinguishable from employees.
Although the NCAA continues to present itself to the public as a defender of time-honored amateur principles, rule changes since the 1950s have cut the NCAA adrift from its amateur moorings. In 1957 the NCAA formally incorporated professionalism into its bylaws by allowing athletic scholarships that pay the room, board, tuition, fees, and laundry expenses of athletes who have no financial need or remarkable academic ability (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1956).  Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA at the time, has recently described the scholarship system in his book Unsportsmanlike Conduct as a nationwide money-laundering scheme whereby money formerly given to athletes under the table can now be funneled through a school’s financial aid office (Byers & Hammer, 1995). 
At first NCAA rules allowed athletic scholarships to be awarded for 4 years.  In other words, athletic scholarships were gifts to talented athletes to help them further their education.  Athletes could arguably withdraw voluntarily from sports and retain their scholarship aid. In the 1960s many athletic directors were concerned that athletes were accepting 4-year grants-in-aid and then refusing to participate.  One athletic director in that period complained to Walter Byers that “approximately 10 students who accepted their scholarships to compete in our program . . .have decided to not participate. I think it is morally wrong.” He then argued that “regardless of what anyone says, this is a contract and this is a two-way street” (Smith, 1966). It is clear from this quote that at least some athletic administrators wanted athletic scholarships to be binding contracts rather than educational gifts.

In 1967, the NCAA passed a rule that allowed scholarships to be withdrawn from athletes who voluntarily withdraw from sports, thus making athletic participation a contractual obligation. This rule, referred to as the “fraudulent misrepresentation rule,” has appeared in the NCAA Manual ever since and makes it clear that students who withdraw from sports or who reject the directions of athletic staff members can lose athletically related financial aid immediately (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1968). The rule also applies to athletes who make only token appearances at practice or who do not show up at all. Whether one thinks such a rule is necessary or appropriate in collegiate sport, it seems clear that by making athletic performance a contractual obligation and allowing withdrawal of financial support for insubordination, athletic scholarships take on some of the trappings of an employer–employee relationship. 

Once the athletic scholarship system was established, colleges began to fear that athletes might be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts. According to Walter Byers, the term student-athlete was created by the NCAA to convince workers’ compensation boards, as well as the general public, that scholarship athletes are students just like any others. It was, of course, true that athletic scholarships were a significant departure from time-honored amateur principles (Byers & Hammer, 1995). By retaining the word amateur, however, and by insisting that the word student always be coupled with the word athlete, Byers hoped to maintain a clear distinction in the public consciousness between college athletes and paid professionals, even though making that distinction was becoming increasingly problematic.
The Drake Group Proposals read
1.  Retire the term student-athlete.

2.  Make the location and control of academic counseling and support services for athletes the same as for all students.

3.  Establish university policies that emphasize the importance of class attendance for all students and ensure that the scheduling of athletic contests not conflict with class attendance.

4.  Replace 1-year renewable scholarships with need-based financial aid (or) with multi-year athletic scholarships that extend to graduation (5-year maximum).

5.  Require students to maintain a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 each semester to continue participation in intercollegiate athletics.

6.  Ensure that universities provide accountability of trustees, administrators, and faculty by public disclosure of such things as student’s academic major, academic advisor, courses listed by academic major, general education requirements and electives, course GPA, and instructor.
The proposals ignore two important facts, both related to the students’ roles as athletes.  First, some athletes earn their universities millions of dollars and are paid a small fraction of that amount.  I can think of no other group of students that are so severely exploited.  Second, for elite athletes, their most valuable education comes in practices and games, not in the classrooms.  The Drake Group proposals offer little benefit and potential harm to these elite athletes by forcing them to take and complete classes that have little value relative to their athletic activities.  Th are simply not typical students.

Any attempt to deal fairly must begin with a higher wage for high-value athletes.  Colleges should bid for their talents as they do for professor and other employees.  For some, the contracts may run into the millions and for others, the contracts may only cover books.  Competitive bidding would end the economic exploitation college athletes.  It would also limit the cross subsidization of athletes and sports that do not turn a profit.  It might limit quality and scope of competition.  I can live with that.   


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  2. Wow I new high school did those things for athletes but had no clue colleges and universities did. Maybe that is because I am not as involved in college as I was in high school. Meaning I had to go to high school, I take online classes at college. I saw it every day at the high school. I do agree that they need to be paid if they are getting the college money. But at the same time just because they are getting the school money does not mean they should get special treatment. They need to attend classes and make passing grades just like everyone else has to.