This week, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th), a Maywood native whose district encompasses most of Proviso Township, introduced a bill that would allow athletes who play sports at four-year public and private universities in Illinois to be compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness.
Welch’s bill was introduced on the same day that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that allows college athletes to get paid from endorsement deals and to hire agents.
Welch’s bill and California’s new law together pierce one of the biggest myths in sports — the “student-athlete.” The “student-athlete” holds the same mystique and reverence as Santa Clause. Most adults know he doesn’t exist, but most adults nonetheless help perpetuate the myth. And that’s fine — when it comes to Santa Clause.
That’s not OK when it comes to the “student-athlete,” particularly if you understand how it originated. Those origins, as the civil rights historian Taylor Branch writes, “lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its ‘fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.'”
The term “student-athlete,” Branch explains, “came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits.
“Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a ‘work-related’ accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was ‘not in the football business.'”
The NCAA has used the term “student-athlete” as a legal shield to fight against a string of liability lawsuits and to avoid having to pay big-time college athletes, many of them black and brown, what they’re worth.
“The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous,” Branch writes. “College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”
Talking to reporters about his support of California’s new law, which the NCAA, predictably, calls unconstitutional, Lebron James, who opted to bypass the plantation-like system of big-time college athletics when he went straight to the NBA from high school, put the matter most succinctly. What if he had gone to college?
“For sure, I would’ve been any one of those kids if I’d have went off to Ohio State or any one of these big-time colleges where that 23 jersey would’ve gotten sold all over the place — without my name on the back, but everybody would’ve known the likeness,” James said.
“My body would’ve been on the NCAA basketball game 2004, and the Schottenstein Center [where Ohio State’s basketball team plays] would have been sold out every single night, if I was there. Me and my mom, we didn’t have anything. We wouldn’t have been able to benefit at all from it. And the university would’ve been able to capitalize on everything.”
Now, that’s an education that a college scholarship can’t buy.