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Who Wins When “Student” and “Athlete” Clash? The University.

Cardale Jones is Ohio State University’s third-string quarterback, but don’t let that fool you. He is a physical specimen listed at 6’5”, 235 pounds who plays his sport’s most important position. In 2011, when he was a senior playing for Coach Ted Ginn (a prominent headset-wearer whose son plays for the San Francisco 49ers), Yahoo!’s high school football site named Jones the 12th-best prep-level quarterback in the country. Right now, he is only a college freshman; his time in the spotlight seems bound to come.

Yet Jones may have jeopardized his career over a deed some have called “childish” and his school deemed “inappropriate.” Did he get caught drinking as a minor? Was it something more serious, like criminal felony charges? Did it have to do with football—the sort of recruiting violations committed by eight former OSU players, which resulted in the Buckeyes’ being banned from playing in a bowl game this season?

No. It was a tweet. Friday, Jones (whose account has since been taken down) tweeted, “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.” In response, the school suspended him for a game. In a statement, the university said, “We allow our student-athletes the opportuity to express themselves via the social mediums. What we do ask of them and communicate to them is the importance of being respectful, appropriate and aware that their communications can impact many people.” Yesterday, over email, a university spokesperson clarified, “His message was disrespectful and inappropriate in the context of being a student-athlete.”

It certainly was. The disciplining of Cardale Jones gets to the heart of the hypocrisy of that much-maligned term “student-athlete.” It’s just a bit of sumptuously ironic icing on the cake that the substance of his tweet was actually about this very hypocrisy.

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The problem with “student-athlete,” as many—most prominently, the Pulitzer-winning historian Taylor Branch—have noted is that when it is applied to young men in high-octane Division I programs, such as Ohio State’s football team, its weaselly hyphen separates two fundamentally incompatible roles. Practically, the student and the athlete too often cannot co-exist. And by the design of the program, Jones has spent more time this football season studying football than studying for his classes. His tweet, if inartful and perhaps ill-advised, was actually correct on the merits: he was not given a scholarship to play school.

Yet the NCAA and its universities insist that he and hundreds of others like him are “student-athletes,” because then they can justify not compensating them for physically dangerous, high-risk, taxing, time-consuming, and extremely lucrative labor. “Two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’—are cynical hoaxes,” Branch wrote last year, “legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” Referring to recent scandals in which players accepted illicit funds from boosters and the like, he added: “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”

But if lack of pay is one side of the humiliating situation the nation’s top college football and basketball players must submit to should they wish one day to become professional athletes, the Cardale Jones affair is the other: a “student-athlete” was punished for something a plain old student could do whenever he pleased. At good universities, students are encouraged to articulate outside-the-box or unpopular thoughts. And an ordinary student’s speech would have to be pretty inflammatory to provoke the condemnation of his school (a public school, no less); it is difficult to imagine that a student who tweeted “Professor Smith’s class sucks” would face any sort of reprimand. By contrast, “student-athletes” are denied the free-speech benefit of a liberal education and the free-speech protections of citizens. They are students when it is time to be paid, and athletes when it is time to play.

The true scandal is that there is no challenge to Ohio State’s right to discipline him, and no one will question Coach Urban Meyer if he decides to hinder Jones’ career because of this remark. “Meyer values integrity,” wrote a Bleacher Report columnist (apparently integrity is signing a $25 million contract to coach grown men who receive not a dime), “and he’s sure to remember this incident when making decisions about Jones’ playing time in the future.”

I reached Taylor Branch by phone yesterday. He did not quarrel with the suspension (he is focused on the issue of pay). But he took the university to task nonetheless. “No student should have their rights abridged on account of their athletic status,” he told me. 

If Jones is a student, then he should be allowed to tweet about not liking class. If Jones is an athlete, with enough responsibility that he isn’t allowed to tweet about not liking class, then he should be paid some figure commensurate to his value and market worth—which would surely exceed the several thousand dollars his in-state scholarship is worth annually. And any hybrid of student and athlete should be designed to give Jones something other than the worst of both worlds.