The Atlantic reveals the history of the NCAA and the true genesis of the “student-athlete”

In the October issue of The Atlantic, available now online, Taylor Branch lays out a behind-the-scenes history of the NCAA that is long, thorough, compelling, and readable. Amidst today’s increasingly loud chatter over major sanctions and paying players, Branch’s sober historical profile explains how the modern NCAA came to be, and how its shaky, yet grandiose origins led to the tenuous position it precariously maintains today.

While I try to keep things on the lighter side around here and leave the heavier stuff elsewhere, one bit of the story Branch carefully detailed jumped out at me: the origin of the “student-athlete” concept so foundational to the NCAA’s purported ideals and mission today. From the section of the article called “The Myth of the ‘Student-Athlete'”:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a “work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was “not in the football business.”

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Using the “student-athlete” defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases.

Branch’s article is revealing and worth spending a slow afternoon reading. It isn’t so much thought-provoking as it is informative, really because there’s just so much of a story to tell. One thought I was left with, though, was whether those fans jumping into the growing throng that seems increasingly driven not only to pay players and establish a football playoff system, but at dismantling the NCAA itself really want (or know) what they’re asking for. There exists an injustice in the current system, no doubt, but the current arrangement is drawing more fans than ever. What college sports fans like, in terms of an end product, is something built on the college sports business empire as it actually exists, not as the NCAA claims to want it to exist, and not as reformers would have it exist. The ripple effects of fundamental change that appear to be on the horizon with increasing inevitability seem unlikely to confine themselves to off-field matters, and they seem to be highly unpredictable. The present arrangement may be untenable, but if you’re enjoying what you’re seeing, you may find your self interest directing you to a position that would preserve this arrangement as long as it can last.

The full article is available here.


6 thoughts on “The Atlantic reveals the history of the NCAA and the true genesis of the “student-athlete”

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