The Myth of the ‘Student-Athlete’
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).
The same priority is reflected in the colleges’ own practices. Football and men’s basketball players are admitted and given full scholarships almost entirely because of their athletic abilities. Academic criteria for their admission are far below those for other students (for example, their average SAT scores are about 200 points lower than those of nonathletes). Realistically, given the amount of time most such athletes devote to their sports, they would have to be academically superior to the average student to do as well in their classes. As a result, according to another N.C.A.A. report, the graduation rate (given six years to complete the degree) for football players is 16 percent below the college average, and the rate for men’s basketball players is 25 percent below. Even these numbers understate the situation, since colleges provide underqualified athletes with advisers who point them toward easier courses and majors and offer extraordinary amounts of academic coaching and tutoring, primarily designed to keep athletes eligible to play.
It’s clear, then, that on the whole members of these teams are athletes first and students second, both from their own standpoint and from that of their schools.
Of course, many supporters of college athletics see no problem here. They think that athletics provides great entertainment, develops loyalty to schools, and has itself an important educational role for team members — not to mention the millions of dollars it brings in. So what’s the harm if high-profile players are more athletes than students?
At a minimum, there’s the harm of saying that players are primarily students when they are not. This is a falsehood institutionalized for the benefit of a profit-making system, and educational institutions should have no part in it.
The deeper harm, however, lies in the fact that, in the United States, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that undervalues intellectual culture and overvalues athletics. As a result, intellectual culture receives far less support than it should, and is generally regarded as at best the idiosyncratic interest of an eccentric minority. Athletics, by contrast, is more than generously funded and embraced as an essential part of our national life.
When colleges, our main centers of intellectual culture, lower standards of academic excellence in order to increase standards of athletic excellence, they implicitly support the popular marginalization of the intellectual enterprise. It is often said that the money brought in by athletics supports educational programs. But the large majority of schools lose money on athletics, and the fact that some depend on sports income confirms, in monetary terms, the perceived superiority of athletics.
To show proper respect for and support of their own central values, colleges need to ensure that their athletes truly are students first of all. To do this they could look no further than their standard practice regarding nonathletic extracurricular activities. They could take account of athletic potential in the admission process the same way they do potential for debate, theater, student government or service projects. All admitted students would have to fall within the same range of academic ability, with exceptionally talented athletes meeting the same standards as applicants with exceptional talents in other areas.
Such a move should be obvious for the many schools that lose large amounts of money on their athletic programs and have relatively little success with them. (I don’t, however, underestimate the pressures to continue even such disastrous programs.) But there’s little practical point to suggesting this move to colleges that make large amounts of money from athletics and strongly identify themselves with winning at the highest level.
Still, it’s hard to see how even these schools can maintain the myth that their revenue-producing players are primarily students, particularly as the moral case grows stronger f or paying the athletes who are central to the tens of millions of dollars some teams bring in each year. But there is a way that profit-making athletic powerhouses could avoid the hypocrisy of the student-athlete.
They could admit athletes who fall far short of their regular academic criteria as “associate students” (or maybe even “athlete-students”), who take just two or three courses a term and are not expected to receive a bachelor’s degree after four years. They would instead receive an associate’s degree (like that currently awarded by some colleges), which would, after four years, put them in a position to gain regular admission to a college where they could complete a bachelor’s degree in two more years. (There would, of course, still be athletes who met standard criteria of admission and so would be expected to earn a regular degree in four years.)
This would end the bad faith involved in pretending that unqualified students, devoted primarily to playing sports, could truly earn a bachelor’s degree. But it would also give a significant educational purpose to the under-qualified athlete’s four years on campus.
Although this is hardly an ideal solution, it’s better than trying to maintain the myth of the student-athlete. But what a magnificent gesture it would be if, say, a school with a legendary and lucrative football program could find the courage to give up the money and the glory for a ringing endorsement of intellectual values.