CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name Kain Colter. The article has been updated to reflect the appropriate spelling. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error
The term student athlete was an invention. It's been well documented that the origins of the phrase trace directly back to Walter Byers, the first executive director of the National Collegiate Athletics Association. It was a nifty trick, promoting athletes above the rank of simple students to explain why they should be judged by a lower academic standard while simultaneously keeping them below the status of employees.
The term entered wide use in 1955 when Ray Dennison, an Army veteran and football player for Fort Lewis A&M, was killed on the opening play of a game against Trinidad Junior College. Going for a tackle, Dennison was struck in the head by an opposing player's knee, shattering the base of his skull. He died 30 hours later, leaving behind three children and his wife, Billie. When she sued for workers' compensation benefits, she was denied.
Ray Dennison was not an employee; he was a "student athlete." The court decided Fort Lewis A&M was "not in the football business." That argument may have been valid in 1955, but it is a far cry from the reality of 2020, when UNC athletics was projected to make $110 million in 2020-2021 before the pandemic.
The NCAA has used the term ever since to place "student athletes" in a no man's land between student and employee, yet detached from the realities of both. The DTH recognizes that this identification doesn't truthfully describe an athlete's role on campus. That is why moving forward, the DTH will no longer use the phrase "student athlete" and instead will opt for "college athlete," "athlete" or "student" as the context requires.
The NCAA used the phrase "student athlete" and the reasoning behind it to avoid paying athletes, to control their name, image and likeness rights and to deny them the ability to unionize. During that same time, these athletes didn't really get to be students, either. Schools have skirted around providing a proper education for these athletes. Our own university failed to educate hundreds of "student athletes" for nearly 20 years, pushing them through fake "paper classes" that required little to no work and which kept their grades just high enough to retain academic eligibility.
At The Daily Tar Heel, we value accuracy. Language is part of that accuracy, and the way we use it shapes the way we as a society think and interact with the world. We feel the phrases "college athlete," "athlete", "player" and "student" portray more accurately that these athletes are students while simultaneously being professionals.
To make it clear, we are not alone in recognizing the cognitive dissonance that is having "student athletes" in an industry that brings in billions of dollars every year. Jay Bilas, a former college player at Duke and longtime critic of the amateurism model says it plainly: college athletics are professional, the players are not. Even the great hall of fame coach Bear Bryant acknowledged in his autobiography that his players were athletes first, students second. Or just ask Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who tried to establish a union for his fellow players: being a college athlete is a job, plain and simple.
To accept the term "student athlete" is to accept the NCAA and the nation's college athletic departments' agenda that these athletes are not employees and to silence the voices of these athletes. We think we should frame coverage using our own words instead.
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