I have this memory of a discussion in a writing class a couple or three decades ago where a student objected to the use another student's essay of the word "jock," which he considered pejorative (a low-key insult). I pointed out that when and where I was an undergraduate and graduate student, "jock" could be used neutrally, as in saying someone was a "ROTC jock" or "tennis jock" or "math jock": just meaning "(somewhat) dedicated to," "interested in" and/or "good at" the activity.
The student countered with noting that "dumb _____" is completed with "jock," not "athlete," and "the well-respected ______" was completed with "athlete," not "jock." If we wanted a neutral or complimentary term for someone serious about one or more sports, we should use "athlete."
I threw in that "jock" for me suggested an activity someone had talent in, and didn't have to work at, and usually didn't. So if we meant someone serious about a sport, and who worked at it, I'd definitely go with "athlete" — and the discussion continued a bit.