House Democrats are investigating whether colleges and universities provide athletes good educations in exchange for performance on the field, in a letter to the NCAA that raises questions about the "student-athlete" designation that historically prevents college athletes from being paid or receiving workman's compensation for injuries.

"[P]ublic reports suggest that the NCAA oversees a system in which its member institutions may be requiring student-athletes, particularly in high-revenue sports, to sacrifice their educational goals for the financial interests of college athletics," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., wrote to NCAA president Mark Emmert, citing, among other things, "that between 7 percent and 18 percent of student-athletes in the basketball and football programs of more than 20 NCAA member schools could read no higher than at the eighth-grade level."

If the NCAA doesn't answer this line of questioning to their satisfaction, it's at least theoretically possible that the lawmakers could take steps to end the "student-athlete" designation at the heart of the NCAA system.

"Our concerns are further heightened because the NCAA has relied on the designation of NCAA players as 'student-athletes' — a term coined by the NCAA more than 50 years ago — to avoid potential financial liability," the congressmen wrote.

Taylor Branch wrote about the history of the term "student-athlete" in an October report for The Atlantic. "The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous," he explained. "College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA's signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms."

Cummings' and Cardenas' letter comes less than a month after college football players at Northwestern University voted to form a union.

"The full National Labor Relations Board has agreed to hear Northwestern's appeal of a regional director's March ruling that the players are university employees and thus can unionize," ESPN reported. "Ballots will remain impounded until that process is finished, and perhaps until after any court fight that might follow a decision."