The NCAA’s ‘Student-Athlete’

"Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount."

It is hard to argue with the NCAA's stated intentions. Governing competition based on the hallowed principles of fairness, sportsmanship, safety? Sounds great! Simultaneously integrating athletics into the time-honored ideals of higher education? Talk about killing two birds with one stone! The NCAA's authority, and the main justification for its continued existence, nominally rests on their noble promise to, first and foremost, protect the "student-athlete". While these intentions seem honorable, they are not an honest representation of the motivations and actions of the NCAA.

Early on, the NCAA sought to enshrine many of the same amateur ideals that it puts forth today. However, even before radio and television contracts made college sports into a multi-billion dollar industry, it was clear that the NCAA was failing to uphold its stated purpose. As early as 1929, the Carnegie Foundation published a report lambasting the NCAA. Among the practices that the report found to be in direct conflict with the NCAA's intended purposes and values were: the recruitment and under-the-table subsidization of supposedly "amateur" student-athletes, the abandonment of true amateurism, and the lack of any meaningful student involvement in decision making. In hindsight, The 1929 report seems almost prophetic by clearly denoting the rampant commercialism already present in intercollegiate athletics, a direct contradiction to the "amateurism" the NCAA attempted to promote as its main ideal.

The Carnegie Foundation's report came out in a time where the NCAA's enforcement mechanisms were basically nonexistent. In the first half of the 20th century, the NCAA had no real authority to enforce widespread regulation to collegiate sports; it was not until 1939, 33 years after its establishment, that the NCAA managed to make helmets mandatory in college football.

As the popularity of college sports continued to grow, however, the NCAA realized it needed to spearhead its inevitable commercialization in order for it to remain a necessary organization. Once the NCAA signed the first television football package with NBC in 1952, everything changed. Suddenly, the NCAA had actual power to enforce its rules on colleges. Television revenues skyrocketed from that point onward. In order for schools to reap the potential financial benefits of televising its sporting events, they were forced to abide by the rules and regulations of the NCAA. As television revenues skyrocketed, so too did the NCAA's authority.

Once television revenues became a major factor in organized collegiate sports, it forced the NCAA to confront their actual purpose. The skyrocketing television revenues of collegiate sports meant that the NCAA had to transform itself into an indispensable governing body of collegiate sports in order to justify their position as a cartel between universities and television networks. In order to incentivize powerhouse sport universities to abide by NCAA rules and regulation (and allow the NCAA to offer their high-profile games to television networks), the NCAA needed to configure itself so that its member-universities would be able to reap significant, sustainable financial benefits from its participation with the NCAA. However, now that college athletes were suddenly a revenue-generating labor force, the NCAA also had to provide assurances to universities that the television and radio revenue flowing from NCAA media contracts would be distributed to the member institutions, not to the labor force itself.

Foreseeing the potential for legal fallout, the NCAA invented the term "student-athlete" in the early 1950s. They embedded this ambiguous label into all its rules and regulations. They made it their core purpose to protect the student-athlete and integrate their experience into the noble pursuit of higher-education. See, NCAA "student-athletes" are more than just students who happen to play sports; this would imply that all student-athletes would be obligated to meet the same academic standards of their peers. But NCAA "student-athletes" are also more than just high-performance athletes who happen to be enrolled in a college; this would imply that student-athletes deserve to be compensated for the role they play in bringing colleges massive amounts of revenue.

Conjuring up the term "student-athlete" allowed the NCAA to justify its own existence as the only possible protector of the "student-athlete". In practice, however, the NCAA has used "student-athlete" mainly as a legal tactic to prevent ex-student-athletes from receiving financial compensation for any goal, how could it justify reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by encouraging (and in some situations, pressuring) those same unpaid "student-athletes" to put their brains in potentially life-altering peril every week? Oh that's right; because without the NCAA, there would be no one to "protect" the student-athlete. The NCAA has responded to football's mental health crisis by relying on the same process it has used since signing their first contract with NBC in 1952: avoiding the risk of legal liability while protecting and ensuring the continuing profit of the NCAA and its universities. So much for being the foremost protector of the "student-athlete", huh?