Student-Athlete Participation in Intercollegiate Athletic Decision-Making: Inclusion through Different Domains of Governance



This investigation focused on literature related to student-athlete involvement and input in intercollegiate athletic governance.  The aim was to develop support for understanding and justifying differences in the level of involvement a student-athlete may have when considering multiple areas of governance. Results revealed that the various claims for and against student involvement should not been seen as mutually exclusive when seeking to understand and justify formal student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making.  Rather, together they provide a complex lens for analyzing and changing the contributions of student-athletes in different domains of intercollegiate athletic governance.  Athletic administrators and other stakeholders should consider each domain and incorporate student-athletes into their governance process appropriately.


The economic activity produced from consumer interests in intercollegiate athletic contests in America is profound. Schnaars, C., Upton, J., Mosemak, J, & DeRamus, K. (2012) report published in USA Today identified the largest intercollegiate athletic budget for a single institution surpassed 150 million in 2011. Currently, CBS network and Time Warner are paying over 10.8 billion for rights to broadcast the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball tournament through the year 2024 (Kramer, 2010). As the financial stakes increase within intercollegiate sport, the NCAA and individual institutions continue to create bylaws and policies which will undoubtedly impact a student-athletes experience in higher education.

Because of the power that athletic departments exert on campuses and within their surrounding communities, there is potential for concern by individuals associated with intercollegiate athletics and the way in which the programs operate.  The purpose of this paper is to focus on those persons for whom the universities, corporate entities, the NCAA and sports networks are indebted to for providing entertainment to fans since the first documented intercollegiate athletic event in 1827. Beginning in the early 20th century, the NCAA and other stakeholders have continued to deny student-athletes a voice or place in the governance of college sports in the United States (Branch, 2011).  This investigation will focus on literature related to student-athlete involvement and input in intercollegiate athletic governance.  Moreover, the aim is to develop support for understanding and justifying differences in the level of involvement a student-athlete may have when considering multiple areas of governance.

Initially, the researcher will provide a brief introduction into the historical origins of student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic governance and then present an integrative review and discussion of the literature, with specific focus on the various reasons for and against student involvement in athletic decision-making.  In order to elaborate on this point, one must realize that different perceptions of student-athletes may represent a justification into certain perceptions of existing power holders; (1) student-athletes can be viewed as stakeholders (2) student-athletes can be viwed as consumers, and (3) student-athletes can be viewed as members of the athletic community. The argument will be made that different perceptions of student-athletes and related claims regarding their involvement in intercollegiate athletics do not have to be treated as mutually exclusive.  Instead, researchers, university administrators, corporate sponsors, and athletic personnel should envision through an intricate lens the nature and extent of student-athlete involvement in different domains of intercollegiate athletic governance.

For instance, the notion of a student-athlete as an athletic community member applies more readily to matters of the CHAMPS/Lifeskills program, while claims arguing they are consumers of higher education gain prominence in academic support services. The final portion of the article reveals that student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic governance can be included in different areas of athletic governance (i.e., academic affairs, policy, finance), thus providing a new lens for understanding and/or justifying an increased involvement of student-athletes in intercollegiate athletic decision-making.

Historical View of Student Athlete Involvement in Governance
The student role in governance of sport can be traced historically to the birth of Oxford in 1167 (Smith, 1988). Here, the organizational nature and governance reflected the elite status of the study body.  Sport participation was valued and organized by the affluent. Sports such as boating, cricket, horse racing, hunting, and tennis were all popular as institutions continued to develop well into the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.  According to Smith (1988) these sporting events were rarely well-organized and often drew the scorn of university officials. The governance of these early college sporting events resembled Bologna University and their “student university” model where students would organize in a group and control the curriculum and organization of their studies.  However, the difference between Bologna and organized sport was the intention to participate in sport activities rather than scholarship.

A combination of the ease of access to participants within the university and the authority to govern sporting events made way for increased growth and interest in athletic competition.  Student leaders of sporting events were able to name the time, place, stakes, and rules of the contest (Smith, 1988). For this reason, the enthusiasm generated from early competitions in Europe eventually made their way across the pond to both Yale and Harvard.  By the 1840’s Yale and Harvard had established bona fide rowing clubs, the first organized sports clubs in American colleges (Lewis, 1970; Smith, 1988).

Much like their English counterparts, the American college students were the leaders of the intercollegiate athletic movement. As early as the 1780’s participation in horse races, betting on cock-fights, and hunting of wild game were known to exist between students at the College of William and Mary (Smith, 1988). The student culture of the American college was organized with athletic teams and clubs that were beyond the control of university presidents, deans, and faculty (Smith, 1988; Miller, 1987; Watterson, 1988; Thelin, 1996). However, as spectators and interests in sporting events continued, the dominance of students and marginalization of faculty, alumni, and collegiate leaders in sporting decisions began to decline (Smith, 1988). For example: Horse racing and betting at the College of William and Mary was so strong and so much at cross purposes with the goals of the institution that college officials banned students from keeping horses, making races, or betting on those made by others (p. 9).

Later, college presidents within national magazines began to influence the public view of college football through emotive inscriptions of the injuries and abuses of the game (Thelin, 1996). In 1904, it was documented that 20 players were killed during intercollegiate football games (Sack & Staurowsky, 1998). The public outcry over the violence and the addition of Theodore Roosevelt’s concern provoked the first successful of many previously attempted reform efforts (e.g., 1898 Brown University Conference, 1892 Charles Eliot Institutional Control Effort, 1884 Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics of America).  In 1905, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States formed (IAAUS).  It was not until five years later that this group adopted its current name the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As important as the creation of the NCAA was to the development of specific sporting rules, the ability to actually govern and gain administrative control of the structure and fiscal portions was not obtained until the 1930’s (Lawrence, 1987).  Prior to this many alumni, athletic directors, and coaches had attempted to garner much of the administrative power from the student body (Thelin, 1996).  An example can be found in 1909 within Yale’s Athletic Association (YAA) which was run by students and alumni: Undergraduate Robert Moses sought to break Walter Camp’s hegemony by creating the Yale Minor Sports Association—an effort that at first bemused, then angered, Camp. To thwart the renegade student movement headed by Moses, Camp called in chips owed to him by campus administrators; the dean of the college tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Moses from his new endeavor (p. 20).

Over the decades, however, continued struggles for power existed.  The commercialized nature of intercollegiate sport had become too profitable for the NCAA, universities, and corporate entities to allow the student body to remain in control.  The addition of academic eligibility, amateurism, and competition rules by the NCAA expanded the lack of student involvement in athletic governance (Thelin, 1996).  Subsequently, much like history of higher education, where the pre-modern experience of the student university in Bologna gradually faded into distant memory with the adoption of the Parisian model, the pre-modern student athletic organizations faded into distant memory with the adoption of the NCAA and its increased membership (Perkin, 2006).

Since the decrease in student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic governance, five significant national studies have been published: (1) the 1929 Carnegie Foundation Study; (2) the 1952 Presidents’ Report for the American Council on Education; (3) George Hanford’s 1974 study for the American Council on Education; and (4) the 1991 Knight Foundation Commission Study (5) 2007 Knight Foundation Commission Study (Thelin, 1996, Knorr, 2004).  Occurring in different decades, each study focused on a specific issue related to intercollegiate athletics. Most important in regards to student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate governance was the 1929 Carnegie Foundation Study which called for restoration of student control (Savage, 1953). Specific issues within the other remaining studies included low graduation rates, lowering of academic entrance requirements for athletes; uncontrolled spending for facilities, escalating compensation for coaches, the manipulation of schedules to accommodate television, and the big-business element continues to drive athletic departments to acquire corporate sponsorships (Knorr, 2004).  Telander (1989) may have been most accurate when he explained that coaches are concerned with winning, athletic directors are concerned with generating revenue, and presidents are concerned with the prestige of the institution. The lack of mention or emphasis on student-athlete development or involvement in governance seems to have been disregarded and besieged by the concern and growth of commercialism.

NCAA and Student Involvement
Prior to the 1980’s the NCAA governed only male sports (Crowley, Joseph, Pickle, & Clarkson, 2006).  The NCAA differed from The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which was at one time the largest governing organization for intercollegiate athletics in the United States, because the AIAW included student-athletes in its governance process from its inception (Willey, 1996).  Student-athletes were able to serve on committees which were recognized at both the national and regional levels. Voting status concerning competition, eligibility, and financial aid was granted to student-athletes. In addition, student-athletes were allowed to serve on appeal committees to review student-athletes complaints or issues (Hendricks, 2011). In order to stay competitive, the AIAW moved away from these ideals, and, by its demise in 1982, appeared to be strikingly similar to the commercial professional model of the men (Smith, 2010).

Given the lack of regard for student involvement in the reform studies and the collapse of the AIAW; it is not surprising that it was not until eight decades after its inception that the NCAA adopted the first formal inclusion of student-athletes into their governance structure with the association wide formation of the Student Athletic Advisory Committees (SAAC) (Hendricks, 2011). Prior to the SAAC, areas such as academic eligibility, amateurism, health and safety and competition rules had been the regulation purview of the NCAA (Braziel, 1997). The SAAC was formed to review and offer student-athlete input of NCAA activities and legislation.  Its purpose is to ensure that the student-athlete voice was accounted for at all NCAA member institutions (NCAA, 2012).

Eventually the idea of allowing student-athlete representation at the national level led to the creation of SAAC at each NCAA division institution. This suggests that the NCAA recognizes that student-athletes deserve a voice in intercollegiate athletics. However, the limited power of the SAAC is obvious.  In 1995, the National SAAC expressed concern over a proposal set forth by the Oversight Committee of the NCAA Membership Structure (Braziel, 1997). Under the new restructuring model, the NCAA adopted a new voting system. The proposed plan was designed to increase university accountability and simplify the governing process.  However, the SAAC argued that the change destroyed the already restricted voice student-athletes had in the governing process.  Today, the national SAAC consists of 80 members serving on the national Division I, II and III committees (NCAA, 2012). The committee continues to push for an increase in student-athlete involvement as described in a letter written during the late 2000’s by the chair of the Division-I national SAAC (Piscetelli, 2006).

Over the course of history, there has been considerable variability regarding student involvement and input in intercollegiate athletic decision-making. From the early 1700’s when students exercised complete autonomy in regards to sporting events; to the failed reform attempts by administrators, alumni, and faculty during the 19th century; to the development of the NCAA; to the Carnegie Report of 1929 calling for presidents and alumni to return power to the student body; to our current day model with the SAAC.
This historical overview can be used as a source for understanding variations in student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making.  The literature provides no secure grounds on which to establish a reason or justification for student-athlete inclusion in intercollegiate athletic governance. In the following sections, the paper therefore considers different reason for and against student athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic governance articulated from a variety of perspectives.


According to Mouton (2001), philosophical analysis is concerned with ‘questions of meaning, explanation, and understanding and such studies are typically aimed at analyzing arguments in favor of or against a particular position. The core of this paper is based on an extensive review of scholarly books and publications via searches of academic literature.  Multiple searches and search strategies were employed addressing the question of student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making.  This includes searches through; university libraries, database searches included ERIC, Academic Search Premier, and Google Scholar.  Keywords included student-athlete governance, student-athlete participation, student-athlete involvement, student-athlete protests, and student-athlete government. The various searches provided a plethora of resources covering over fifty years of scholarship.

The final selection of sources was driven by theoretical considerations and the aim of the study, whereby only a fraction of the original sources could be utilized.  Preference was given to peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters in books that showcase the debate within the intercollegiate athletic community and directly engage with the question; how student athlete involvement in athletic department decision-making may be justified? The result is a historical-philosophical analysis and discussion of key arguments for and against the involvement of student-athletes in intercollegiate athletic decision making.

Reasons for and against student-athlete involvement in university decision-making will be articulated from a variety of perspectives: (1) student-athletes as stakeholders (2) students-athletes as consumers; (3) student-athletes as members of a community.  This section discusses the various ways in which the case for the formal inclusion of student-athletes in intercollegiate athletic decision-making has been made in the literature.


The power of student-athletes as a political member has been illustrated most recently in the extensive pressures provided through a non-NCAA sponsored organization known as the National College Players Association (NCPA).  The NCPA has been on the front line fighting for student-athlete concerns ranging from: increases in scholarships monies, holding universities responsible for player’s sport-related medical expenses, increased graduation rates, protected educational opportunities for student athletes in good academic standing, elimination of restrictions on legitimate employment, and modification to current transfer rules (NCPA, 2012).  Over the course of 3 years, the NCPA has expanded to include over 15,000 members consisting of both current and former NCAA student-athletes (NCPA, 2012)

The NCPA has successfully collaborated with other external organization (i.e., Knight Commission, Coalition of Intercollegiate Athletics) to pressure the NCAA and its constituents into making reforms by publishing research and exposing issues to media outlets such as CBS, 60 minutes, ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous radio programs (NCPA, 2012).  More recently, the organization collected over 300 Division I football and basketball student-athlete signatures petitioning for a share in NCAA revenues (Zagier, 2011).  While the NCPA continues to support the student-athlete, historical accounts of student-athletes on campus advocating for increased involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making has been masked and needs to be revealed.

One of the first documented organized efforts by student-athletes to battle big-time college athletics occurred in the mid 1930’s. The lack of jobs for players, healthy food, and insufficient medical goods influenced the Howard University Bison’s to boycott participation in football games (Fram & Frampton, 2012). In 1937, the University of Pittsburgh undefeated football season resulted in uncertainty and unrest between players and the university (Oriard, 2001).  In this instance, the players organized and demanded compensation of $200 dollars for their participation in the season culminating Rose Bowl. The university disagreed to the terms resulting in players increasing their demands of the institution the following season.  The players believed they should be provided four-year athletic scholarships, accommodations for missed classes, and collective bargaining rights (Fram & Frampton, 2012).

Fast forwarding to the 1992-93 academic year, unified student-athletes at University of Oklahoma demonstrated their power to facilitate change by refusing to practice (Blum, 1993). The collective strategy required the coaches to cancel practice and provide the players a platform to vocalize their dissatisfaction with the team and its coaching staff.   Furthermore, a similar event occurred at Morgan State where school officials canceled the last scheduled football game because they feared that the team would stage a half-time protest to show its disgust of the head coach. In this instance, the team demanded the removal of the head coach, whom they accused of being verbally and physically abusive (Blum, 1993).  The issue was resolved with the firing of the head coach.

A more recent event occurred at University of California, Davis in 2010 where student-athletes silently marched into the institutions gymnasium in order to protest the possible elimination of funding for certain sports teams.  The silent sit-in protest included the gathering of signatures and occupying of the first floor lobby where the Office of Student Affairs was located (Tsan, 2010).  The petition was presented to the Chancellor with hopes to influence the administrations decision. The results were not in favor of the student-athlete when they received news that four of the 27 university sports teams would be cut.  However, a positive of the outcome was those student-athletes who were provided grant-in-aid were still able to receive funding for their remaining years at the institution.

These examples illustrate that student-athletes are cognizant of the potential for collective action on and off the playing fields. Although their efforts have been confined primarily to athletic issues, the precedent for successful collective action has been shown to include a variety of student-athlete concerns. Therefore, the political argument for student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making exists.

The political argument is centered on the idea that student-athletes are internal stakeholders (i.e., politically significant constituents of intercollegiate athletics).  “Stakeholders are persons or groups that have or claim, ownership, rights, or interests in a business and its activities, past, present, or future (Clarkson, 1995, p 106).”  According to Harrison & Freeman, (1999) addressing the perspective of various stakeholders is socially responsible organizational behavior. Therefore, with democratic governance by stakeholders being commonplace in universities (Morrow, 1998), it remains troubling to think that the NCAA seems to have adopted a more monolithic approach. The NCAA’s influences along with other stakeholders (i.e., sports networks, faculty, corporations, and conference commissioners) have continued to deny student-athletes a legitimate place at the table.  Those stakeholders who currently have a voice must recognize that the athletic culture is composed of competing, internal stakeholders, all of which must be heard and accommodated (Boland, 2005).

Additional research was completed by Thompson (1972) analyzing the political functions and consequences of formally including the general student population into university governance. Thompson (1972) found that when general students are incorporated into the governance process as stakeholders, they are quickly exposed to the complexity of issues, the recognition of the consequences of decisions, and the development of personal commitments.  Consequently, loyalties develop through the inclusion of the governed and in return major impulses are deflated (i.e., student athlete protests or revolts will not occur).

As a result, formal student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making would provide, on the one hand, an alternative to tactics of coercion through organizations like the NCPA and future disruption or protests by student-athletes.   On the other hand, the inclusions might also moderate the partisan views of other member of the intercollegiate athletic community and thus create less adversarial relationships between the current intercollegiate athletic powers.

Student-Athletes as Consumers
As opposed to the political argument for the involvement of all stakeholders through democratic governance, an additional argument for student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making can be made with reference to the role and function of student-athletes as consumers of higher education. This case involves different viewpoints of student-athletes as well as intercollegiate athletic departments.  The student-athlete is viewed as a consumer of higher education, whereas, the athletic department and university are viewed as a service provider in a contractual relationship with the student-athlete.  As the service provider makes decisions, the student-athletes experience the consequences.  For that reason, it seems the student athletes should be provided the right to partake in decision-making.

However, student athletes are a diverse group and diversity can be both a strength and weakness to the consumer argument.  Besides gender, student-athletes are diverse economically, racially, socially, and geographically.  These differences can create distinct issues for the internal structure and goals of student-athlete involvement in governance. For example, what do student-athletes desire from the NCAA and athletic departments?  Student-athletes in revenue-producing sports may want increased profit or revenue sharing.  Student-athletes in nonrevenue-producing sports may want increased scholarships.  Women athletics may want equal funding. The diverse individual interests of student-athletes could potentially destroy the consumer argument because the variety of goals associated with the consumer.

Therefore, it is critical that student-athletes in terms of political influence determine at least one common goal in their involvement in governance. As consumers, it seems education would be the most appropriate choice because it remains a commonality among the student-athlete population.

Student Athletes as Members of the Athletic Community
An additional argument first explored by Wolff (1969) argues general student participation in decision making can be justified by virtue of students being members of a community. Without a doubt, the notion of students as full members of the academic community still carries currency in studies that seek to make a case for general student rights to involvement in university decision making (Bergan, 2004; Lizzio, A. & Wilson, K, 2009).  According to Wolff (1969) ‘a community of persons united by collective understandings, by common goals, by bonds of reciprocal obligation, and by a flow of sentiment makes the preservation of the community an object of desire, not merely a matter of prudence.’ This communitarian view of the university can be easily transferred to a communitarian view of intercollegiate athletic departments. Consequently, an argument for inclusion of student-athletes involvement in athletic decision-making through the community domain exists.

However, an argument may exist against student-athletes as full members of an athletic department’s community.  One could argue that student-athletes by definition and in practice are only temporary members of this community, whose commitment to intercollegiate athletics mission may be diminutive. Thus, students are not likely to be personally affected when decisions they have been partial to actually take effect since they will have left campus by then (Zuo and Ratsoy, 1999). Others could point out that characteristically intercollegiate athletic departments are not democratic communities but rather are structured in a fairly rigid professional hierarchy of athletic expertise and seniority.  Therefore, student-athletes are at best, novices and junior members of the intercollegiate athletic community.

Is it appropriate for student-athletes to claims to having an equal voice and equal authority in intercollegiate athletic governance or should their voice be tempered in view of their limited knowledge and experience?  Many of the stakeholders today would argue the student-athletes authority should be weighed against the competencies of other groups within the intercollegiate athletics community; in particular, those of the faculty, coaches, administrators, and corporate entities.  Therefore, the argument is that authority should reside with the credentialed rather than the less expert.  However, Thompson (1972) argues that the involvement by all major groups in governing the university has important benefits, such as a better quality of decisions. In the case of students-athletes, the potential educational benefit of participating in decision-making of intercollegiate athletics should be seen as a means to pursue the educational purposes of the university.

The argument for formal student involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making as a means to instill democratic norms and values in students as future citizens carries a strong message.  Active citizenship is one of a number of potentially positive consequences of student inclusion.  Thompson (1972) notes that by widening the circle of participants in decision-making to include others (i.e., student-athletes), the results may reveal positive educational effects in different respects. Student-athlete involvement is not only for the benefit of the student athletes themselves, but it is also likely to improve the quality of decisions and acceptance of decisions. In these regards, the inclusion of students in intercollegiate decision-making contributes to the pursuit of the institutions and the NCAA mission.


The historical-philosophical debate analyzed in the previous section shows that the meaning and justification of student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making can be understood with reference to different views of the student-athlete.  These different conceptions provide a means for understanding the nature and extent of student-athlete involvement in different contexts and domains of intercollegiate athletic decision-making. When considering formal student-athlete involvement in the various domains of intercollegiate athletic governance student athletes as stakeholders, consumers, and members of the athletic community claims come to play in various combinations.

Governance of Policy
The involvement of students in intercollegiate athletic decisions dealing with policy involves considerations of students’ expertise both as low-ranking members of the athletic community and users of athletic department and institutional services.  The nature and extent of student-athlete involvement will vary with regard to the setting (academic policy, team policy, department policy, and NCAA policy).  Additionally, the nature of the issues under considerations must be evaluated (e.g., staffing, marketing, compliance, academic affairs).

Governance of Academic and Student Affairs
Extra-curricular involvement in intercollegiate athletics dealing with matters of the Champs/Lifeskills programs, fundraisers, and so forth, offers extensive opportunity for student involvement in decision-making.  Here students are clearly the most interested and affected members of the community; as users of services and facilities for student development, their lived experience offers invaluable expertise in decision-making.  Moreover, as student athletes they have certain rights and responsibilities associated with governing their own lives.  Students acceptance of and support for decisions taken in this domain of governance is particularly crucial and students collective power to demand or reject certain decisions must be seriously taken into account.

Governance of Finance and Planning
A complex combination of different reasons for and against formal student involvement comes into play when considering the nature and extent of student-athlete involvement in  financial decision making. In certain contexts, student-athletes may have been able to carve a niche historically as a political constituency that needs to be consulted and formally involved.  Student-athlete involvement in this domain may engross the recognition of certain participatory rights of students as adults and citizens. However, the increasingly dominant view of student athletes as transient users and consumers indicates that such high-level participation can be only marginal. An example of one scenario where student-athletes may successfully lobby for a seat at the decision-making table would be an issue such as social media monitoring or banning for student-athletes.


This illustrative application of different claims and related views of student-athletes proves that they are not exclusive to a specific domain of governance.  Rather, the goal was to provide in combination a heuristic lens for considering student-athlete involvement.  The researcher has outlined the history of student-athlete involvement in university governance and analyzed multiple arguments for and against formal student-athlete involvement.  The task involved a review of the literature and has yielded reasons for and against the consideration of increased student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making. It has been argued that the various claims for and against student involvement, and related perceptions of students, should not been seen as mutually exclusive when seeking to understand and justify formal student-athlete involvement in intercollegiate athletic decision-making. Athletic administrators, faculty, and other current stakeholders should consider each domain and incorporate student-athletes into their governance process appropriately.


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