This past weekend, fans flocked to college football stadiums across the country to cheer on their favorite teams. Collectively they spent millions of dollars on tickets, food and other equipment. And in 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 the term never made sense.
“It was the brainchild of a guy named Walter Byers, who was the executive director and welfare dictator of the NCAA for years,” Bilas explained 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 less than the athletes to the workers.”
It also adds an anomaly, luxury to college life. “They don’t call student-musicians. or student-scientist. Or student-writer. It’s student-athletes only. So it’s a meaningless term that was used to put a thumb on the scale to prevent athletes from getting any money. It really was all. And, and everything, it remained for years.”
Think about it: A college band student can go to a local bar and play shows for money. An art student can sell his work in a gallery. But a student-athlete? No dice.
Bilas’s criticism is part of a larger skepticism toward the National Collegiate Athletic Association more broadly — and he’s far from the only one who sees the organization as outliving its purpose.
“We often lose sight of the fact that what we’re talking about is, at least at the highest level, a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry that’s embedded in our institutions of higher education,” said Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator and now one who Has been an advocate for the rights of student athletes. “These institutions exist to educate, promote, develop and protect the youth. But when it comes to commercial, college sports at the highest level, commercial incentives get in the way of that mission too often.”
The NCAA’s original mission never envisioned it could oversee such a large operation. It was formed in the early 20th century as various colleges and universities scrambled for a 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 level of football and especially men’s basketball, their experience is much more similar to that of a professional athlete than a fellow college athlete in a lower division, a different conference or a different sport.” . “And the fact that collegiate stadiums pack more fans than pro stadiums, [people] Find it confusing, especially when you tell them that none of these players are being paid to participate in the game you’re watching.”
In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that student-athletes can receive education-related payments. Shortly after, the NCAA voted to uphold an interim policy that would allow college athletes to earn money from their names, images and the like. Which, for some of the most recognizable athletes, is a lot more money in their pockets. But for the average college athlete to play at a mid-major Division I school, it doesn’t pay much in the way of cash.
College sports aren’t suddenly going to disappear. As ESPN’s Paul Finebaum told me, there are too many people who care too much to let their schools happen. But everyone I spoke to suggested that the NCAA is already greatly diminished as a force in college athletics – clinging to a deeply antiquated idea of what it means to play sports in college in the 21st century.