Building Civic Muscle

By Kerri Heffernan

Over the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of college and university athletes returned to their campuses for ‘pre-season’ – a week or more of intense practices designed to get athletes prepared for the season ahead. Recognizable by the sweaty herds moving from practice to dining hall to weight room, players will eat, drink, sweat, and socialize with one another building camaraderie and esprit de corps.

In matching t-shirts and shorts it would be easy to dismiss these student-athletes as clannish and self-involved, spending too much time on their playbooks and not enough on their textbooks. They’re often exhausted, bruised, and wrapped in bags of ice. While some in the academy will dismiss the hours they devote to sport as a frivolous use of university resources all in the name of fun, today’s practice, like yesterdays and tomorrows, was not fun, nor was it intended to be so. Practice was and is most often, repetitive, frustrating, and full of failure. Practice demands persistence for incremental success, all interspersed with moments of exhilaration and despair. The truth is most athletes do not engage in collegiate sport because it’s entertaining or fun, they play because it’s difficult, a struggle they share with teammates. And they play because it’s a significant part of their identity.

Beyond the allure of friends, sweatshirts, and championships, there are strong social and psychological benefits for students who embrace their identity as athletes; this admittedly is often to the exclusion of exploring other identities. But a failure to explore or integrate identities is not limited to student-athletes. Many undergraduates come to college fixated on their potential professional identities or embracing specific disciplinary identities (what campus is not inundated with legions of young entrepreneurs?). Many students, and not just athletes, limit their identity development. But athletic communities are unique. University athletics teams are durable and robust structures, which provide athletes with a ready-made community of friends and confidants. Within these communities, sweat and tears, as opposed to alcohol and other stereotypical forms of undergraduate bonding, provide the social lubricant and result in accelerated intimacy and lifelong friendships. The type of trust and emotional intimacy that often takes years to develop in standard friendships can form in just a matter of weeks in the context of college athletics.

Civic and service practitioners know that one of the best predictors of future civic engagement is the extent to which students participate in activities that expose them to working collectively toward a common goal, offer opportunities to listen to different perspectives and ways of thinking, and require students to assume leadership. These types of experiences help students hone the skills and dispositions of self-awareness and self-control that are critical for democracy. One of the best arguments for athletics is that sport inculcates these core democratic values. Athletes practice and wrestle with concepts of justice, equity, diversity, and duty every day. Learning to temper and control impulsive behaviors and self-centered inclinations in service of a larger goal is so aligned with sport that when athletes transgress we are particularly upset.

While stereotypes of boorish athletes abound, so do real examples of laudable athlete behavior. Last spring, the University of Oklahoma football team did much to mend the campus after a highly publicized racial incident. Marching arm-in-arm across campus and speaking thoughtfully to different members of the campus community, the players demonstrated their commitment to equity and diversity. Arguably, no other group in the campus community carried as much moral authority on the subject of race as the football team.

Some of the more compelling research on student athletes seems to suggest that they are at risk of a psychological phenomenon known as “pluralistic ignorance,” engaging in public behaviors that align more with perceived norms than with true or authentic preferences (Oppenheimer). This explains why some student-athletes may drink too much and/or dismiss academics as they are stooping to perceived social norms of the team as opposed to pursuing more lofty academic and professional goals. Much of this has to do with the examples and expectations universities set for student-athletes. But again, pluralistic ignorance is not limited to athletes, as many non-athletes embrace the perceived norms of campus communities and in the process compromise their social, moral, civic and intellectual development. This idea of ‘perceived norms’ is a two-sided coin, and with encouragement and support, athletes are just as likely as their non-athletic counterparts to show “character,” pursue “loftier goals,” and act on the basis of shared values.

While character development can be an important outcome of sport, it’s important to note that athletes perceive their participation in sport as in keeping with the universities teaching and learning agenda. Through sport, student-athletes hone important cognitive skills like observation and description, the interpretation, classification, synthesis and interpretation of information, as well as translation and articulation. In an athletic context, such thinking skills are essential for mastering a complex defense, such as assessing an opponent’s game plan or mastering a technical skill. These skills are often developed sequentially, one building upon the other, and demonstrated over and over again in practices and games with feedback from coaches and teammates. Perhaps most importantly, these ‘feedback loops’ often occur during stressful situations that require student athletes to take initiative, exercise creativity, and assume responsibility for how their decisions and actions affect an outcome. When they succeed, student-athletes increase their self-confidence; when they fail, they learn from the subsequent feedback and revise. These feedback loops help athletes learn to tolerate frustration and failure. This tolerance for failure, combined with the development of complex thinking skills, can make student-athletes adept researchers, engaged scholars, and active citizens.

The challenge to understanding sport as integral to the teaching and learning agenda is both conceptual and practical. Conceptually, athletic departments don’t have a history of collaborating with academic departments and therefore don’t tend to see themselves as part of university teaching and learning. As such they are rarely involved in conversations about pedagogy or the public purposes of higher education. Practically, student-athletes rarely have the time to engage in much beyond their academic and athletic commitments. The significant demands of sport participation, particularly at Division I schools, often isolate athletes from the larger student population and contribute to a disparaging stereotype of athletes as less engaged than non-athletes in the academic and extra-curricular life of the university. Student-athletes are often left to their own devices to juggle the disparate demands of academic, service, employment and athletic commitments; often under scrutiny, any engagement they exhibit outside scholar-athleticism is laudable

While there are legitimate questions about the time commitment sport demands and its impact on student-athletes, it’s important to note that the vast majority of college and university athletes are late adolescents still struggling through developmental stages and striving to be good people. Their experiences in athlete communities can facilitate their civic development. Their labors in sports bring prestige to the university and foster a sense of community on campus and beyond.

There are many who understandably believe that in this era of budget reductions, the ascendency of STEM, and some high profile scandals (e.g., the protracted pedophilia scandal that shook Pennsylvania State and the academic scandal that rocked UNC), that athletics needs to slink quietly off to the sidelines. Civic and service movements as well as universities have paid insufficient attention to the vast civic potential of sport. We need to accept athletics as an integral component of the teaching and learning that occurs on college campuses. While many are eager to offer criticism on the place of sport in the academy, we need to balance such calls with recognition of the democratic and civic values that sport helps to cultivate and inculcate. Athletic and academic departments need to engage in collaborative discussion about learning goals, seek to address problems of pluralistic ignorance and restricted identity formation, and together formulate a vision for preparing students to be active citizens in a twenty-first century world.

This is the first in a series of posts from Kerri Heffernan, Co-Director of Engaged SportLearn more about Kerri and the work of Engaged Sport at