This past weekend, fans flocked to college football stadiums around the country to cheer on their favorite teams. Collectively they spent millions of dollars on tickets, food and other paraphernalia. And on every television broadcast, the players on the field were referred to as “student-athletes.”
Jay Bilas, an ESPN basketball commentator and former Division I athlete at Duke University, thinks that term has never made any sense.
“It was the brainchild of a man named Walter Byers, who was the executive director and sort of the benevolent dictator of the NCAA for years and years,” explained Bilas in an interview for my “Downside Up” podcast. “And he ruled the NCAA with an iron fist out of Kansas City. And so he came up with that term so they wouldn’t have to pay workers’ comp to athletes.”
It’s also an anomaly in college life, Bilas adds. “They don’t say student-musician. Or student-scientist. Or student-writer. It’s only student-athlete. So it’s a nonsensical term that was used to keep the thumb on the scale to keep athletes from getting any money. That’s really all it was. And, and all it, it has remained over the years.”
Think about that: A band student in college can go and play shows at a local bar for money. An art student can sell his or her work in a gallery. But a student-athlete? No dice.
Bilas’ critique is part of a broader skepticism with the National Collegiate Athletic Association more broadly – and he’s far from the only one who sees the organization as one that has outlived its purpose.
“We often lose track of the fact that what we’re talking about is, at least at the highest levels, a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that is embedded in our institutions of higher education,” said Tim Nevius, a former investigator for the NCAA and now someone who has become an advocate for the rights of student athletes. “Those institutions exist for the purpose of educating, promoting, developing and protecting young people. But when it comes to commercial, the highest level of college sports, the commercial incentives get in the way of those missions very frequently.”
The original mission of the NCAA never even considered that it could end up overseeing such a massive operation. It was formed at the turn of the 20th century as various colleges and universities were scrambling for some sort of governing body that could formalize a set of rules and procedures for the nation’s college sports. Which was fine when sports were a relatively low-key affair. But it is much more problematic now.
“At the highest levels of football and men’s basketball in particular, their experience is so much more similar to that of a professional athlete than it is of a fellow college athlete in a lower division, a different conference or a different sport,” noted Nevius. “And the fact that the collegiate stadiums pack more fans in than the pro stadiums, [people] find baffling, especially when you let them know none of these players are paid for their participation in this game that you’re watching.”
In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that student-athletes could receive education-related payments. Not long after, the NCAA voted to support an interim policy allowing college athletes to make money off of their name, image and likeness. Which, for a few of the most recognizable athletes, means a lot more money in their pocket. But for the average college athlete playing at a mid-major Division I school, it doesn’t provide much in the way of cash.
College sports aren’t suddenly going to disappear. As ESPN’s Paul Finebaum told me, there are just too many people who care too much about their schools to let that happen. But everyone I spoke to suggested that the NCAA is already greatly reduced as a power within college athletics – clinging to a deeply outdated notion of what it means to play a sport in college in the 21st century.