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Unions For 'Student Athletes' Should Be Name Of The Game

Chad Cooper via Flickr (Creative Commons BY 2.0)

When the bard posited so many years ago that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, he couldn’t have imagined the idea of 21st century sports.

In Shakespeare’s world, the term student-athlete would have been an oxymoron, like tasty gruel or benevolent king.

Flash forward to today where such linguistic gymnastics are standard fare for the NCAA and its member institutions. 


They use that kind of terminology to describe the young people who play sports in college. It’s a delicate dance these administrators do to avoid the obvious.

When the phrase student-athlete was invented in the 1950s by Walter Byers, the inaugural president of the NCAA, it was initially said presumably to elevate young male athletes to a certain status.

Now, it’s said, almost with a smirk, by people trying not to say what ought to be pretty self-evident: these male and female athletes aren’t just students or athletes. They are university employees. 

Did you notice, for instance, how the University of North Carolina sent students home from campus this week and went to online instruction for the fall after increasing numbers of young people were testing positive for COVID-19? 

Yet, the highest profile students, the athletes and particularly the football players, remained on campus to continue working out towards a goal of playing in a few weeks. They’re essential employees in every sense but name and pay.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, of which North Carolina is a founding member, as well as the Southeastern and Big 12 conferences, are all attempting to field fall sports teams in the midst of mounting evidence that college campuses aren’t ready for mass numbers of young people to gather again.

Those three leagues stand in stark contrast to the vast majority of college conferences which postponed their fall campaigns earlier this month. 

The Pac-12 and Big Ten, of which Maryland is a member, called a halt to things apparently in part because of data from a survey of college athletes who had recovered from coronavirus. 

According to a New York Times story, the data showed that up to 15 percent of athletes with the virus also developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can lead to cardiac arrest with exertion, you know, like playing sports.

Professional athletes, if apprised of this situation, would negotiate through a union to deal with this kind of risk. 

And therein lies the rub. Calling college age players anything other than student-athletes would open the NCAA, conferences and schools to having to grant them union status and force negotiations over working conditions.

And we know how well that would go over. 

It’s clear that the term student-athlete needs to go the way of the dinosaur. Talk show host Rich Eisen has proposed the phrase online student and on-field athlete.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Daily Tar Heel, the North Carolina student newspaper, has dropped the term, in favor of either college athlete, athlete, player and student, depending on the context.

No matter what you call the performers, we all can agree that the situation they’re in smells like anything but a rose. 

And that’s how I see it for this week. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.


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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.