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3 Questions: Why are student-athletes amateurs?

MIT Professor Jennifer Light digs into the history of the idea that students aren’t part of the labor force.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office
March 24, 2019

Debate about the unpaid status of NCAA athletes has surged in the last decade — and did so again last month when the best player in men’s college basketball, Zion Williamson, got injured in a high-profile game. Meanwhile, graduate student unionization drives frequently raise the same question: Aren’t some students also workers creating value for universities? And how did we come to regard student-athletes, say, as amateurs in the first place?

Jennifer Light, the Bern Dibner Professor in the History of Science and Technology and a professor of urban studies and planning, has just published an article in the Harvard Educational Review on the history of this idea that students are not part of the labor force. She places its origins in the 1890-1930 movement to expand public schooling, which promoted schools as alternatives to child labor and put them forth as “protected” places for young people to focus on future-oriented training. MIT News talked to Light about her research. This interview has been edited for length.