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February 15, 2004

End Of Student-Athlete Welfare ‘As We Know It?’

FROM THE DICTIONARY OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS COMES one of the most pervasive—and ambiguous—terms in NCAA circles: "student-athlete welfare." The term is used liberally by parties on both sides of a discussion. It’s like invoking the qualifier “for the good of the kids” to underscore a point at a school board meeting—no one can argue about a purpose so exalted and lofty.

The term "student-athlete welfare" was born about 15 years ago in an NCAA manual. It has become a regular part of the college athletics lexicon ever since. However, like so many other catchy catch-all phrases, “student-athlete welfare” has no precise meaning, and it is interpreted in different ways at different times by different people.

Ask ten college athletics administrators and student-athletes to define the term and you’ll get ten different answers.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany: “It's somewhat in the eye of the beholder.”

Jeff Orleans, of the Ivy Group: “The term 'student-athlete welfare' allows whoever wants to command the high ground in any dispute to turn the matter into a moral question.”

Dylan Malagrino, former Div. I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Chair: “Almost everything anyone does ultimately can be argued as being for the student-athletes' benefit.”

University of Minnesota Duluth President Kathryn Martin: “Student-athletes are here to get an education and they don't want their education compromised by their involvement in athletics. That's what student-athlete welfare means."

In the area of playing and practice seasons and student-athlete time demands the various constituencies involved have contrasting opinions of how to best serve student-athlete welfare. College presidents think that student-athlete welfare is promoted by limiting practice and games. Meanwhile, student-athletes and coaches think that their welfare—and the school’s welfare (by winning that is)—is best served without limits.

At issue in the area of initial eligibility: are student-athletes best served by being allowed access with lower requirements, or by making sure that incoming student-athletes are prepared to handle the rigors of college education? College presidents think incoming student-athletes should be better equipped: in Division I, the core courses requirement is being increased from 13 to 16 by 2008. However, opposing groups play the “student-athlete welfare card” by claiming that tougher initial-eligibility standards disadvantage prospective student-athletes.

“Student-athlete welfare” has evolved into barbed phraseology that immediately and effectively disarms the opposition. The term has become a PC statement par excellence. When confronted by the term in a discussion, one is well-advised to tip toe carefully around it; while they can oppose the other person’s idea itself, they had better do so without sounding like they are opposed to “student-athlete welfare.” After all, how can anybody be opposed to such a noble cause?

The arbiters of what constitutes student-athlete’s “best interests” are ultimately the school administration. The degree to which they foster open communication and mutual respect dictates the buy-in for the policies that get enacted. The extent to which school administration is comfortable in allowing coaches and student-athletes to participate in the decision process will shape how far apart the parties will be in defining “student-athlete welfare.”

There is so much baggage attached to the word “welfare” that many think a new terminology is warranted. Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s suggestion is “student-athlete success.” NCAA President Myles Brand weighs in with “student-athlete well-being.”

Other possibilities? Here are some unofficial, unsolicited College Athletics Clips ideas: student-athlete care, student-athlete self-actualization, student-athlete achievement, student-athlete accomplishment, student-athlete entitlement, etc.

Hmm. Maybe Mssrs. Hemenway and Brand have the right ideas after all.


(This 577 word excerpt was extracted from a 3,429 word article—“In their best interests?”—from the NCAA News of 2-2-04. Supplemental commentary by College Athletics Clips has been included.)