The failed attempt by Northwestern University football players to unionize as employees raises important questions about college football.

Is “student-athlete” an outdated reference no longer describing accurately the athletes who compete in the NCAA’s most lucrative sport?

Are football players primarily students who also play a sport or are they primarily athletes who are obligated to attend classes?

The NCAA, university leadership, athletic directors, coaches, fans and boosters state unequivocally that athletes are students first. But does rhetoric match reality?

The college football culture appears to cause many to see themselves primarily as athletes.

The requisite degree program is a means to retain their football scholarship, rather than the sport being viewed as a means to obtain a quality education in preparation for life after athletic competition.

A New York Times column highlighted the prevalence of this emphasis on being athletes more than students, winning games more than excelling academically.

The article quoted a 2012 tweet from an Ohio State University player: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

The comment was posted by Cardale Jones, OSU’s starting quarterback during the first college football playoff in 2014 in which the team won the national championship.

Exception or the rule? That is the uncomfortable question so many are afraid to ask.

Mack Brown resigned in 2013 from his position as head coach of the University of Texas football program after facing pressure from university leadership and boosters over a perceived lack of on-the-field success.

He left with an overall record of 134-34 at Texas, was 82-22 in conference play, won six division titles, two conference titles, a national championship, was bowl eligible in 13 of 14 years and had one losing season.

Brown also improved the football program’s graduation success rate (GSR) from 40 percent in 1998 to 61 percent in 2007 (the most recent NCAA data available), though I don’t recall any discussions about academics factoring into the decision.

“When you hear presidents and athletic directors talk about character and academics and integrity, none of that really matters. The truth is, nobody has ever been fired for those things. They get fired for losing,” he told the New York Times.

In an effort to counter the reality Brown disclosed, the NCAA has run ads for years emphasizing the concept of “student-athlete:” “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.”

At the top of the organization’s website is a link to a student-athlete section, emphasizing the same concept: “More than eight out of 10 student-athletes will earn a bachelor’s degree, and more than 35 percent will earn a postgraduate degree.”

Yet, how often do you hear or engage in discussion of the GSR of college football programs appearing in the weekly top 25? How many coaches have been critiqued, much less dismissed, for lack of academic success?

With media, fans and boosters focused almost exclusively on wins and losses, we shouldn’t be surprised that athletic directors, coaches and players focus primarily on the same.

Even GSR does not tell the whole story, though, because within the football industry grades and degrees inevitably become means to ends.

Addressing variations of the assertion that “athletes are given a chance to complete a degree through scholarships,” sports writer Kevin Trahan emphasized, “Simply getting a degree doesn’t cut it.”

“Athletes are routinely clustered into majors that don’t set them up to succeed later in life, mainly because those majors are easy enough for athletes to focus on their sport,” he revealed.

Trahan added, “The result is a focus on eligibility rather than education … they put [athletes] in easy majors … [that] allow players to get easy degrees that give them little chance of finding a job consistent with their peers, many of whom had more time and academic prowess to spend on more challenging majors or will go to graduate school.”

The widespread focus on sports over education is further demonstrated by the NCAA’s own research, which found that a significantly higher percentage of athletes choose schools for athletics than for academics.

The question that colleges and universities, fans and boosters, athletes and their families must consider is this: Are “student-athletes” being prepared sufficiently for a future beyond sports through a quality education with a marketable degree?

As football season commences, I’ll join the throngs tuning into the TV coverage each week.

While we enjoy the competition, we would be wise to scrutinize carefully and closely the sport or sports we love to ensure the most positive short- and long-term outcomes for the students playing the game.

University presidents, athletic directors and coaches are responsive to their fans and supporters.

They know, despite the statements they and the NCAA make publicly, that wins are the focus of the masses more than academic success.

Consider how long a Division I football coach would retain fan support and keep his or her job with a losing record each season, even with a GSR in the 90th percentile.

Unless the college football industry finds an effective way to make academic success at least as important as athletic success, the sport will no longer be played by true student-athletes – ad campaigns and public rhetoric notwithstanding.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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