Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.
The term student-athlete has been so misused that it has become meaningless.
The NCAA created the term in the 1950s to avoid paying workmen's-compensation benefits to a college football player who died from a head injury, according to The Atlantic's 2011 investigative report, "The Shame of College Sports." In recent years, the NCAA has similarly used the term to justify not compensating college players.
Top-tier college basketball, in particular, has made a mockery of the "student" part of the term. Ever since the NBA instituted the so-called one-and-done rule in 2006, college basketball players have been required to spend one year in college before entering the pros.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has taken advantage of the rule to attract highly touted recruits that stay just a season in Lexington. The approach paid off in 2012, when Kentucky won the national championship.
Yet Saturday's game showed the limits of the approach and the possibility that the idea of the student-athlete isn't a sham. The Gators, starting four seniors and ranked No. 1 in the country, decisively defeated Kentucky, starting four freshmen, to finish an undefeated SEC schedule.
The Gator seniors are now getting some overdue national attention. While readers of The Sun are familiar with their stories, it was gratifying to see Sports Illustrated last week highlight the four players' individual journeys.
Their stories show that big-time college athletes can grow personally and as players by staying in school rather than leaving early. The SI story's accompanying photos of the players visiting Gainesville elementary schools should instill a good feeling in all local residents, whether or not they're basketball fans.
Coach Billy Donovan deserves praise for having assembled and kept together such a special group of players. Donovan hasn't always had players who stuck around for four years, but things seemed to change in 2007 after another group of Gator seniors won their second national championship, as Sun sports columnist Pat Dooley recently noted.
Half of the 18 players Donovan recruited from 2007-2010 stayed around the become seniors, according to Dooley.
The University of Florida athletic association has received criticism in the national media in recent years due to a string of arrests of football players under former coach Urban Meyer. Former Gator Aaron Henandez's murder charge cemented that terrible reputation.
But a new story is now being written at UF. It can seen with former football star Matt Elam working in an Oaks Mall shoe store while he takes classes to finish his degree, despite having already earned a multi-million dollar pro contract.
It can be seen in the players in all the Gator sports outside basketball that have No. 1 rankings, from softball to indoor track and field.
And it can be seen in a special group of senior basketball players seeking an SEC conference tournament championship and hopefully making a long run at the national championship. It's the type of thing to make one believe that the serious student-athlete still exists, right here in Gainesville.