Engaging the Student-Athlete Identity

The Aspen Institute released a report last spring entitled Project Play, which they described as ‘an ambitious plan to reimagine youth sports, prioritizing health and inclusion’ (Project Play, 2014). In creating the report and the subsequent strategy for engaging the nation, The Aspen Institute convened over 250 leaders in health, industry, policy and government. While academics helped develop the report, higher education was largely absent from the subsequent action plan.

This is not the first time national initiatives have overlooked higher education as part of the solution, it is nonetheless disappointing given the recent strides made in the service and civic engagement movements. Indeed, service and civic engagement have become embedded in higher education. A substantial number of faculty from diverse disciplines have developed curricular initiatives that engage students with community, and the language of engagement is found in many college strategic plans. University administrators are reaching out to a range of curricular and co-curricular campus actors in an effort to gain greater commitment to the principle of engagement within their institutions. These campus partners include an ever-widening array of academic departments and offices of student life, residential life, international programming, admissions, and career services. The one department conspicuously absent from these efforts is the athletic department.

Almost every college and university in the country has an athletic department and there are approximately 500,000 NCAA and NAIA student athletes. Currently, 13 Division 1 universities have athletic department budgets over $100,000,000 and coaches of high profile sports are often paid more than the President of the University and the Governor of the state. There is no financial equal to university athletic departments; they are outwardly facing, richly resourced departments that value active learning.

Perhaps most importantly, athletic departments appear to value community engagement. Athletic department websites feature mascots hugging children, athletes organizing lift-a-thons and road races for charity; teams wear pink uniforms to raise awareness for breast cancer and athletes stop by local schools and hospitals to meet children. While these types of community experiences appear to be relatively popular with student-athletes and they are undoubtedly good public relations for the school, they fall short of meeting the public purpose of higher education (i.e., that of educating students in the duties of citizenship). It appears that the overwhelming approach of university athletic departments to community is charitable, apolitical and needs oriented. These charitable models are rarely transformative for students or communities, as they don’t require student-athletes to build relationships with community members or to reflect upon the structural forces, which conspired to create the need in the first place. And while athletic departments have portfolios bursting with charitable initiatives, few if any diligently assess the measureable difference that community engagement makes. If athletes are part of an ongoing program reading to children, can the athletic department show that the intervention of student-athletes made a measurable difference in the children’s reading scores? If not, why do they continue to run the program? Athletic departments vest great significance in performance as a measure - coaches are fired and hired based on their records of wins and losses - so why is there such little interest in the outcomes of community engagement or in developing more complex models for engagement?

The Challenge of Engaging Athletes

The challenge to engaging student-athletes in more complex models of civic work is both conceptual and practical. Conceptually, athletic departments don’t have a history of collaborating with academic departments and don’t tend to see themselves as part of the universities teaching and learning agenda 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 civic work. Athletes in many Division I sports spend more than 35 hours a week participating in college sport-related activities, including practice, competition, and travel (USA Today). A recent study of PAC 12 athletics found that athletes engaged in sport-related activities for up to 50 hours a week. The PAC 12 study also concluded that student-athletes are exhausted, juggling the demands of sport with full academic loads, service expectations and often, jobs. Not surprisingly, when asked what they would do with more time, 55% of student athletes in the study said ‘sleep’ (Pac 12 Report).

For any number of reasons, the service and civic movements have largely ignored student-athletes. I believe that some of the indifference to athletes has to do with the negative perceptions of student-athletes. Student-athletes are often stereotyped as clannish, self-involved and anti-intellectual - more likely to harm community than forge it. Research however suggests that participation in athletics has positive effects on students’ civic habits, skills, and dispositions. Young people involved in sport are more likely than non-athletes to vote, volunteer, and follow the news (Lopez, Moore, 2006). And athletic teams can have a powerful and positive influence on their members, particularly in demonstrating and reinforcing civic values, skills, dispositions, and knowledge (Lopez, Moore, 2006). 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 indispensable for a vibrant democracy (Cite). One of the best arguments for athletics is that sport fosters 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 the service of a larger, more collaborative goal is so naturally aligned with sport that when athletes transgress we are particularly upset.

The Student-Athlete Identity

Athletic teams are typically comprised of students from very different lived experiences. But the physical and emotional intensity of competitive sport, including long trips with teammates and difficult practices, often create spaces for authentic conversations. Many athletes moreover understand the value of diversity at depths well beyond their non-athletic classmates, and the imperative of ‘having your teammate’s back’ is quite literal in some sports. As such, athletes can be very adept at consensus building and negotiation- skills that are imperative to a team’s success. Unfortunately research supports the contention that student athletes often do not have the time to develop identities beyond that of ‘student-athlete.’ This ‘athlete identity’ can lead them to minimize time spent on activities outside of their sport. While athletes, like their non-athletic peers, have multiple identities, there is a strong social and psychological benefit for identifying primarily as an athlete. A failure to integrate identities is not limited to student-athletes. Many undergraduates come to college fixated on their potential professional identities or quickly embrace specific disciplinary identities. Out of economic necessity or in service to titles and accolades, many students unduly narrow their identity development, often to the detriment of their civic identities; we rarely dismiss such students as self-involved.

Being an athlete carries a powerful sense of self and community (Adler and Adler, 1991). Research shows that the social category of athlete includes positive civic dispositions like an appreciation for diversity, equity, justice, duty and loyalty. Indeed, the history of higher education is replete with examples of athletes acting on these positive dispositions to advocate for political and social change. 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. No other group in the campus community seemed to wield as much moral authority on the subject of race as the football team. This and other notable displays of ‘athlete activism’ are reminders of the political cachet that athletes enjoy on their campuses as well as their unique ability to work with others in a political context to influence or alter social institutions. When activist athletes are celebrated and supported the entire community is enriched.

Some of the more interesting research on student athletes seems to suggest they are at risk of ‘pluralistic ignorance’, or engaging in public behaviors that align more with perceived norms than with true or authentic preferences. As a result, some student-athletes drink excessively and/or dismiss academics because they are stooping to the perceived social norms of the team as opposed to pursuing more lofty personal and academic goals (Oppenheimer). 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. Many non-athletes embrace the perceived norms of campus communities and in the process compromise their social, moral, civic and intellectual development. We must acknowledge that this idea of ‘perceived norms’ is a two-sided coin. With encouragement and support, athletes are as likely to pursue ‘loftier goals’ and exhibit character and integrity.

This idea of character development seems to strongly resonate with university administrators and is historically regarded, as the reason sport exists on college campuses. While character education is an important element of sport, it’s a limited framework for understanding university-based athletics. Student-athletes tend to think that sport is a useful part of university teaching and learning agenda. Through sport, student-athletes hone important cognitive skills like observation and description, the classification, synthesis and interpretation of data as well as translation and articulation. In an athletic context these thinking skills are essential for mastering a complex defense, 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 under 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, and 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 informed citizens. The ability to tolerate frustration and work in concert with others toward a larger goal is a characteristic of good athletes and good citizens.

But perhaps the most compelling argument for developing relationships with student-athletes and our athletic department colleagues is that community partners want sport programs and athletes are great ambassadors for the ways sport can be employed to serve local and global communities. There are numerous examples of student-athletes making significant contributions to community through their work in anti-racism, fair labor, gender equity, inclusion, and health care. As noted sports writer David Zirin noted “when athletes act on their values they can have a great deal of influence on the public and reach people who are completely alienated from politics” (Zirin, The Nation).


Student-athletes are an oft studied and debated population. 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 struggling through developmental stages and striving to be good people. Their experiences in athlete communities can facilitate their civic development and hone their sense of social justice. Moreover, their labors in sport bring prestige to the university and increase a sense of community on campus and beyond. Service and civic advocates can support student-athletes and explore the use of sport by:

  • Identifying and engaging faculty who were student-athletes.
  • Working with departments to develop curricular models that utilize sport as an operative framework.
  • Offering course development grants to coaches.
  • Recognizing the time commitment sport places on student-athletes and working with those commitments in a respectful and understanding fashion.
  • Encouraging research in the field of sport and development, as well as sport and civic engagement.
  • Working with student life colleagues to better grasp the kinds to supports needed to encourage loftier goals for all student communities.

Universities and the civic and service movements have paid insufficient attention to the values, skills, and dispositions that student-athletes bring to communities. The field needs a bolder vision and plan for engaging student-athletes and athletic departments. That plan begins with seeing athletics as a part of the university teaching and learning agenda. While many are eager to offer criticism on the place of sport in the academy, we need to balance that with recognition of the democratic and civic values that sport helps to cultivate.

Adler, P.A., and Adler, P. (1991) Backboards and Blackboards: College athletes and role engulfment: New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Oppenheimer, D, (2014) The problem’s not the NCAA. It’s players’ expectations of their peers

Chronicle of Higher Education

Lopez, M. H., and Moore, K. (2006) Participation in Sports and Civic Engagement:

Center for Information and Research on Civic Leaning and Engagement, University of Maryland.

This is the final post in a series of posts from Kerri Heffernan, Co-Director of Engaged Sport. Learn more about Kerri and the work of Engaged Sport at http://www.engagedsport.org.