If there was any doubt before the pandemic that the term “student-athlete” was oxymoronic, there isn’t any longer. My inbox in the week leading up to the Michigan football game against Minnesota included both guidelines from the University of Michigan about how to follow the Washtenaw County emergency order and emails from the Michigan Athletic Department reminding me about game day. The email on Oct. 20 from University President Mark Schlissel announcing the stay-in-place order didn’t mention the term “essential workers,” but the exception for University’s athletes (nearly all of whom are undergraduates) made it clear that is what the University has deemed them. 

The term “student-athlete” was invented by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to avoid labor laws. In 1955, a Fort Lewis A&M football player named Ray Dennison suffered a fatal injury during a game. When his widow filed for workers’ compensation benefits for Dennison, a scholarship athlete, then NCAA executive director Walter Byers concocted a legal strategy to ensure college athletes would not be seen as employees in the eyes of the law. The term “student-athlete” was born, invoking amateurism as a way to avoid both payment and liability, and it stuck. And Ray Dennison’s wife lost her lawsuit. 

In 1984, Byers came out against the system that he had helped create, accusing the NCAA of exploiting the athletes under the guise of amateurism. He stated that campus athletic programs had adopted a “neoplantation mentality” where “the coach owns the athlete’s feet, the college owns the athlete’s body, and the athlete’s mind is supposed to comprehend a rule book that I challenge (the NCAA’s chief of enforcement) Dave Berst … to explain in rational terms to you inside of eight hours.” 

A recent NCAA policy change to allow athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness is the first major step toward acknowledging that college athletes are not exactly amateurs, but that money would come from a third party, not the NCAA. Schlissel has tried to keep up the pretense that the school’s athletes are, in-fact, students first. In May, he stated that there would not be football unless there were in-person classes. He is just barely able to keep that promise, even as undergraduates are under a stay-in-place order, by allowing “all classes that are substantially enhanced by in-person instruction” to continue in-person

According to an email from University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, about 10% of undergraduate classes still have some in-person components. Given on-campus residents can return home and receive prorated room and board, in-person classwork is clearly not a major concern for most. 

Schlissel contends varsity athletics pose little risk of transmitting COVID-19. Daily testing certainly helps mitigate the spread, but it’s worth noting that the week of Oct. 17, the athletic department reported 26 cases. Not exactly nothing. 

Yes, college athletes get daily testing while regular undergraduate students more or less had to prove to University Health Service that someone who tested positive coughed in their mouth. To me, that’s not the issue. Frontline workers should get frequent testing; they’re putting their bodies on the line after all. The issue is that we continue to pretend that college athletes are just like regular undergraduates, just in better shape and with honed athletic talents. They aren’t. They are essential workers to the University, as evidenced by their exception to the county health department’s order. 

But if we call them what they are, the jig is up. It’s one thing to admit that the grocery store and its workers are essential. It’s quite another to say that a football game, executed by unpaid athletes who earn their schools millions in exchange for a degree worth much less, is an essential service in the midst of a global health crisis. It certainly would make tailgating, even from home, less appealing if we reframed the game as watching essential workers risk debilitating, even life-threatening illness (in addition to the risk of injury they take every game) for the purpose of entertainment and the University’s bottom line.  

Some 36 years after Byers called for an end to the system he created, major news outlets largely continue to keep up the charade that college athletes are students first. The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, finally had enough this year, announcing that they would no longer refer to college athletes as “student-athletes.” They will use “college athletes” or simply “athletes” or “students,” depending on the situation. These days, allow me to suggest “essential workers.” Is a change in terminology a solution to the blatant exploitation of college athletes for profit? No. But saying the quiet part out loud is a start.

Jessie Mitchell can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu

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