The Student-Athlete Model and the Socialization
of Intercollegiate Athletes
Jonathan Marx, Scott Huffmon,
and Andrew Doyle
This paper explores the congruency between the student-athlete model advanced by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and its member universities and the actual expectations of male and female athletes toward academics and athletics. The discussion examines the attitudes of student-athletes (N=128) participating in 17 Division I-A sports at a southern comprehensive university. Surveys were administered using computer-aided, self-interviewing (CASI) protocols. The results indicate that male and female athletes vary in their student-athlete socialization experiences. Further, their perceptions of themselves correspond with the expectations of significant others; respondents often perceived both conflicting messages and unrealistic expectations from friends, coaches, teammates, and parents. Since the expectations of parents, coaches, and teammates can promote or discourage college athletes’ aspirations to the student-athlete status, sport psychologists and athletic advisors should actively counsel parents, coaches, and teammates regarding the impact of those expectations.
The phrase “student-athlete” is virtually de rigueur in the parlance of university athletic departments and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), yet many observers regard it as little more than a verbal smokescreen—a transparent attempt to divert attention from the hypocrisy they regard as inherent in intercollegiate athletic competition (Drake Group, 2005; Sperber, 2000; Zimbalist, 1999). These observers argue that athletes in revenue-generating intercollegiate sports, notably Division I-A football and men’s basketball, are professionals in all but name and that the relationship between their athletic exploits and the educational mission of their universities is tenuous at best. The continual and often mind-numbing swirl of scandals and allegations of systemic hypocrisy cause some to doubt whether it is even possible for a college athlete to be a legitimate student.
However, recent research indicates that psychological and academic advantages accrue to college athletes who regard themselves as student-athletes. Killeya-Jones (2005) found that football players in elite programs who value academics as highly as athletics are more likely to experience higher levels of both life and academic satisfaction. Conversely, Killeya-Jones found that football players who saw a discrepancy between their dual roles as students and athletes experienced greater levels of depression and decreased self-esteem. Additional research indicates that student-athletes confront a variety of stressors in athletic, academic, and social realms, making it difficult to achieve such a balanced identity (Heller, Bloom, Neil, & Salmela, 2005; Miller & Kerr, 2002; Papanikolaou, Nikolaidis, Patsiaouras, & Alexopoulos, 2003; Wilson & Pritchard, 2005).
Despite the possible psychological benefits of a balanced student-athletic identity, little is known about the proportion of college athletes who aspire to student-athlete status and the degree to which they are committed to that goal. Likewise, few empirical studies have explored how such socialization agents as parents, coaches, and counselors act to either foster or dissuade this beneficial identity throughout the college years. Socialization is the interaction process by which the group (i.e., society, community, formal organization, team) teaches its members the characteristics-knowledge, skills, values, and norms deemed appropriate (Charon, 1993; Henslin, 2007). Two general theoretical approaches allow us to better understand the socialization experiences of student-athletes: social identity theory (Brown, 2000a, 2000b; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and Pescosolido’s (1986) general theoretical model on the socialization of initiates in voluntary training programs. Previous studies examining the student-athlete status have not attempted to merge their findings into such broad socialization frameworks; this study does so.
Social identity theory (Brown, 2000a, 2000b; Hogg, 1992; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) posits that many first-year college athletes should identify themselves with the socially desirable student-athlete status, thus giving them a sense of belonging and self-worth. The national media campaign of the NCAA actively promotes the attainability, stature and ubiquity of the student-athlete identity in its member institutions. Chandler and Goldberg (1990) found that most male high school athletes want to be remembered as scholar-athletes rather than simply as great athletes, so their desire to attain this status as collegians would be a continuation of an existing valued identity (Hogg, 1992). Yet the student-athlete identity is unstable; any dual social identity is vulnerable to splintering if one of the two component statuses overly heightens or damages self-esteem. Intercollegiate athletic competition has a profound power to do both. An athlete who is committed to and achieves at least some degree of athletic success usually receives strong positive reinforcement from coaches, teammates, parents, friends, and fans, thus enhancing his or her self-esteem. The nature of the team experience also works to strengthen the bonding process. Coaches and team leaders among the players actively promote and reward team cohesion, and formal and informal initiation rituals, task interdependence, and the experience of winning and losing as a group are essential to this process (Brown, 2000a; Lewin, 1948). Athletes who most strongly commit themselves to their peers and their group efforts often find it extremely difficult to develop a balanced student-athlete identity, as academic demands often run counter to the team’s perceived interests. Adler and Adler (1989) provide a vivid example of the process by which the individual identities of collegiate male basketball players can be engulfed by the needs of the team. Although student-athlete is a valued social identity (Hogg, 1992), that joint status may not provide as many opportunities to promote “groupness” as its component parts (Zander, Stotland & Wolf, 1960).
The experience of freshman intercollegiate athletes can be expected to parallel initiates in other voluntary programs. In a literature review of previous work exploring the socialization experience of initiates in medicine (Becker & Greer, 1958), nursing (Davis, 1968; Shuval & Adler, 1979), and criminal justice (Regoli, Poole, & Schrink, 1979; Van Maanen, 1975), Pescosolido (1986) found that the subjects’ social identities tend to change in a predictable ways over time. She identifies a pattern by which initiates in such professional training programs tended to adopt a set of specific attitudes and behaviors. Pescosolido notes that initiates tend to undergo a three-stage process: they enter their respective programs in a state of expectancy, followed by one of disillusionment, and finally conclude with a process of reconciliation. This dynamic takes the shape of a backwards j-curve. The theoretical relationship between time and role assimilation places time in status on the x-axis and attitude level on the y-axis. New recruits typically enter these programs with an idealistic commitment to achieving the desired status and its associated role expectation (expectancy). The idealism of the recruits wanes as they come to understand that reality typically does not match their expectations—that is, the training and/or occupational experience may not be what they anticipated.
In addition, an emerging peer group often reinforces a set of attitudes and ideals that runs counter to the trainee’s original expectations (disillusionment). The conflicted initiate subsequently responds by developing an instrumental attitude toward surviving the program. Trainees parrot what they assume their superiors want to hear and see. Toward the end of the program, as they achieve an increasing degree of autonomy and access to applied practitioners and clients, their level of idealism returns to some degree, but never to its original levels (reconciliation). Importantly, Pescosolido (1986) suggests that both formal structure and informal interaction contribute to the initiate’s experience. She contends that organizations can influence the socialization process by structuring the frequency, composition, and power differentials of the trainees’ interaction with various socialization agents. The manner in which organizations do this can either impede or facilitate the retention of initiates’ initial idealism. In other words, the general pattern is not deterministic; an organization could ideally structure interactions to avoid the characteristic pattern of expectancy-disillusionment-reconciliation. Pescosolido’s model (1986) is useful in understanding the assimilation of the student-athlete status. Like social identity theory, it first predicts that incoming college athletes possess an idealistic notion about that dual status. It appears that anticipatory socialization fosters the notion that concurrent success in both academics and athletics is both desirable and attainable. In a longitudinal qualitative study of a Midwestern Division I collegiate men’s basketball program, Adler and Adler (1985, 1991) found that entering freshman basketball players embraced the student-athlete role. The student’s idealistic expectations were the product of such sources as the media, friends, family, and coaches. Likewise, Meyer’s (1990) qualitative cross-sectional study of twenty-three Division I women’s volleyball and basketball players (one-third of whom were former players who had already graduated) found that athletes tend to have high academic expectations upon entry into college. Male and female athletes at a Canadian university had a similar high level of idealism (Miller & Kerr, 2002). However, previous research has not quantitatively measured initial level of idealism or how it may vary by gender.
The second stage in the Pescosolido model (1986) suggests that a freshman’s original positive orientation toward the student-athlete status diminishes as the demands of academics and athletics at the collegiate level become apparent. Qualitative research indicates that male intercollegiate athletes fit this pattern. The male college basketball players studied by Adler and Adler (1985, 1991) clearly experienced a series of role strains and role conflicts. These players found that the both the student and athlete roles differed greatly from their initial expectations. Coaches demanded that they devote most of their time and energy to the team. The game they once loved had now become a job. Meanwhile, their professors had far higher expectations than high school teachers, so most found academic success to be elusive. Under such pressures, most players abandoned the student-athlete ideal and came to see themselves solely as athletes. Their teammates reinforced anti-intellectual norms, thus aiding this transition. They resided in an athletic dorm that isolated them from the general student population, further reinforcing this purely athletic identity. And finally, the fans, the media, and, to some extent, the coaching staff promoted athletic over student status. The basketball players thus became disillusioned with the student-athlete role; most focused on the demands of the athletic program, distanced themselves from the academic role, and struggled to remain athletically eligible. And the players did not increase their commitment to the academic role toward the end of their college careers.
On the other hand, several studies (Meyer, 1990; Miller and Kerr, 2002; Sack & Thiel, 1985) describe a different pattern for female athletes. Meyer (1990) found no decline in women’s orientation toward the student-athlete role. In fact, she suggested that their commitment to this dual role actually increased over time. Miller and Kerr (2002) found a short drop in academic orientation during freshman year, followed by a strong recovery during the latter years of college. Each study emphasized how such significant others as parents, teammates, friends, and coaches provided equal praise to women for their athletic and academic achievements.
Researchers have thus established that both males and females initially accept the dual student-athlete status. However, while males experienced a disillusionment phase, no such decline in idealism occurred among women (Coakley, 1990). Women seem better able than their male peers to maintain their initial levels of idealism towards the student-athlete role. As the Pescosolido model (1986) and social identity theory (Brown, 2000a, 2000b; Hogg, 1992; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) suggest, informal interaction contributes strongly to the initiate’s experience. Male and female athletes thus confront unique pressures from such socialization agents as parents, teammates, friends and coaches.
The current empirical paper explores several related questions: 1) Do levels of idealism regarding the student-athlete role vary by gender? 2) Does the student-athlete socialization experience vary over time by gender? 3) Do male and female athletes perceive similar degrees of reinforcement from significant others regarding the student-athlete status? And, 4) Do the expectations of significant others correspond with the student-athletes’ perceptions of themselves? The answers to these basic questions can aid educators, sport psychologists, and other professionals to more effectively structure support systems for student-athletes.
One hundred thirty-seven (out of a total of 228 total) student-athletes at RH University voluntarily completed a survey that explored these and other issues, for a participation rate of just over 60 percent. From this sample emerged 128 usable responses, representing student-athletes from every athletic program offered at RH University. The men’s athletic programs include basketball, cross country/track, golf, soccer, baseball, and tennis; the women’s programs include basketball, cross country/track, golf, soccer, volleyball, and tennis. Although RH University does not have a football program, several of its programs regularly qualify for NCAA Division I Championship Tournaments, most notably the revenue-generating sport of men’s basketball.
The majority of the sample was underclassmen: 39.7 percent freshman, 24.6 percent sophomores, 21.4 percent juniors, and 14.3 percent seniors. As is typical with voluntary survey participation without enforced randomization procedures, women are slightly overrepresented in the sample. According to the Athletics Department at RH University, men comprised 50.9 percent of the student-athlete population in the spring of 2005, while women made up 49.1 percent. Women comprise the majority (53.9 percent) of the sample population used in this study, while men account for 46.1 percent.
The racial make-up of the respondents in the sample nearly matches that of the overall student-athlete population; however, the racial breakdown is somewhat problematic. Following NCAA guidelines, the Athletics Department only categorizes U. S. citizens by race; non-citizens are lumped into the “Non-Resident Alien” category, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. Yet it is possible to gauge the accuracy of the racial profile of the current sample by removing those respondents who are not U. S. citizens. The racial profile of the United States citizens in the sample (71.1 percent white and 28.9 percent African American) was reasonably close to the racial profile of the overall student-athlete population (74.9 percent white and 24.1 percent African American).
Finally, the vast majority of the sample—87.4 percent—received some sort of athletic grant-in-aid. However, the annual value of those grants varied widely. Out-of-state student-athletes commonly received only a reduction in tuition to the in-state rate, and most of the others received a tuition rebate of less than one thousand dollars per semester. Only some of the better players on the men’s basketball team received grants that fully covered the cost of tuition, room, and board. The data indicated no significant gender differences according to race, class status, or scholarship value.
Surveys were administered at the Social and Behavioral Research Laboratory (SBRL) at RH University. The SBRL utilized Survey System, a software package from Creative Research Systems, to run the survey instrument itself. The surveys were administered using computer-aided self-interviewing (CASI) protocols. Such procedures and the careful wording of our survey questions reduce reliability concerns significantly (Babbie, 1998). The Athletics Life Skills Director made the schedule available to the coaches for each team, who in turn circulated it among their players. Student-athletes took the survey at times of their choosing. They were neither coerced nor directed to participate, and they were not offered any incentives for their participation. Those who began the survey could opt out at any time.
The survey was administered between February 20, 2005, and April 20, 2005, a period that coincides with all or part of the competitive seasons of every sport except soccer and volleyball. Thus, participants’ perceptions might have been influenced by the timing of data collection. However, even those taking the survey when they were not participating in practice or competition were responsible for regular strength and conditioning sessions and other team activities. As a result, except for a handful of out-of-season seniors whose eligibility had expired, every respondent was actively participating in at least some formal athletics-related activity.
The survey included roughly 75 questions exploring many aspects of the student-athletes’ experience. These ranged from their level of satisfaction with their athletic experience to drug and alcohol usage to issues of race and sexual orientation. (The survey is available from the authors upon request.) The items relevant to this study are reviewed in our research questions below:
Do male and female athletes vary in their levels of idealism toward the student-athlete role? To address this question, the research utilizes a typology developed by Snyder (1985) that characterizes students by their commitment to the academic versus athletic role. Snyder identifies some students as “pure athletes” who commit themselves totally to the athletic role, to the exclusion of the student role. Meanwhile, those who commit themselves solely to the academic role are “pure scholars.” Members of the third category—“student-athletes”—have a strong commitment to both athletic and academic roles. The final residual classification includes students who are not committed to any of these roles. To gauge relative commitment, the respondents were asked, “How do you want to be remembered for your time in college?” The response choices included: 1) almost completely as an athlete, 2) mostly as an athlete, 3) equally as an athlete and as a student, 4) mostly as a student, and 5) almost completely as student. Chandler and Goldberg (1990) posed a similar remembrance question in their landmark exploration of high school students. But while they constructed their discrete categories from a series of 5-point Likert scale items on each role/identity, we chose to use a single ordinal-scale item. We chose this method because it allows the respondent to determine his or her role categorization rather than relying on the researcher’s categorization. Using the same response categories, this survey also explored how respondents believed that they were remembered in their former high schools. In terms of external validity, the respondents’ perceptions correlated with objective performance. Those who thought they were remembered more as students in high school ranked higher in their graduating classes (Spearman’s r = .40; p < .01). Likewise, respondents who thought they would be remembered more for academics than athletics in college tended to have higher college grade point averages (Spearman’s r =.19; p < .05).
By performing a series of chi-square tests of independence on these two ordinal variables crossed by gender respectively, the research explores levels of identification with the student-athlete role at the high school and collegiate levels. In addition, by contrasting the perceptions of male and female respondents regarding how they believed they were remembered at their high schools with how they wanted to be remembered at college, we can examine how males and females vary in their idealism toward the student-athlete role beyond high school.
Does the student-athlete socialization experience vary over time by gender? The next step involves breaking down the variable on how the respondents want to be remembered in college by college class and gender by graphically contrasting the sample of students with the Pescosolido model (1986) and previous works on the topic. The analysis remains descriptive in nature because declining sample sizes preclude meaningful inferential statistical analysis.
Do men and women athletes perceive similar reinforcement toward the student-athlete status from significant others? Five questions explore how the most relevant significant others reinforced the various roles. In response to the question “For which of the following do your [parents, coaches, teammates, male friends and female friends] give you the most respect, admiration and positive feedback?” participants chose from: 1) almost completely for my athletic performance, 2) mostly for my athletic performance, 3) equally for my athletic and academic performance, 4) mostly for my athletic performance, and 5) almost completely for my academic performance. Together this set of variables provides the core of the analysis of how the student-athlete role correlates with the wishes of various socialization agents. In terms of external validity, the respondents’ perceptions on these items correlated with objective performance. The grade point averages of self-identified student-athletes correlated with their perceptions that they received higher levels of respect for academics than they did for athletic performance from male friends (Spearman’s r = .20; p < .05), female friends (Spearman’s r=.29; p<.01), teammates (Spearman’s r = .40; p < .01), parents (Spearman’s r = .25; p < .01), and coaches (Spearman’s r=.40; p < .01).
A series of goodness of fit chi-square tests on coaches, teammates, male friends, female friends and parents perceived reinforcement patterns were performed. The analysis allows us to explore if student-athletes perceive conflicting messages from significant others. Another goodness of fit chi-square test explores how socialization varies by gender, including an uncoupling of a fascinating interaction between the gender of the student athlete, the gender of the friend, and the perceived reinforcement of the scholar-athlete role.
Do the expectations of significant others correspond with the student-athletes’ perceptions of themselves? The last topic correlates the student-athletes’ perception that they have both the intellectual and athletic ability to meet their own expectations in these areas with the effect of social agents and other factors. Previous researchers in this area have contended that students who feel ill-equipped to meet their own academic or athletic expectations tend to experience role strain (Killeya-Jones, 2005); such research generally links the sources of role conflict faced by student-athletes with the time demands and extraordinary pressure to perform in competition. In contrast, the current study contends that their subjective perception of these external resource demands is the key to understanding this role strain. In other words, respondents may desire to balance the statuses of student and athlete but feel ill-equipped to meet their expectations for one or both, independent of the actual level of the external demands.
Calling upon the classic work of social psychology theorist Charles Cooley (1964/1902), the data suggest that the manner in which the respondents view themselves is influenced by their perception of the opinions of significant others. Using a five-point Likert scale, respondents were asked whether they “have the physical ability to meet my own athletic expectations” and whether they “have the intellectual ability to meet my own academic expectations.” These endogenous variables gauge the gap that the athlete perceives between his athletic and academic goals and his ability to meet them. A higher score indicates a greater congruence between talent and goal.
In terms of external validity, the respondents’ perceptions of these factors correlated with objective academic performance. Those with higher grade point averages felt they had the intellectual abilities to meet their own academic expectations (Spearman’s r = .23; p < .01). Although we do not have an objective indicator of athletic ability, we did find that the student-athletes who indicated a greater confidence in their ability to meet their own individual athletic goals generally judged their athletic abilities to be higher than those of their teammates (Spearman’s r = .23, p < .05).
In order to measure the influence of significant others on self-image, participants were asked, “Do you have the physical ability to meet the athletic expectations” and “the intellectual ability to meet the academic expectations” of their parents, friends, teammates, and coaches, respectively (again, on a five-point Likert scale). Additional factors of analysis included academics (grade point average, high school rank), demographics (sex, race, college class), social factors (where and with whom they live and eat their meals), the effects of social agents (expectations of coaches, parents, friends, and teammates), and negative academic experiences caused by athletic participation (scheduling problems and conflicts with professors over issues related to athletics).
Since the dependent variables—the self-perception of the ability to achieve academic expectations and the self-perception of the ability to achieve athletic expectations—are multiple category ordinal variables, a multinomial logistic regression analysis was performed (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). In order to address sample-size concerns for such an analysis, the two five-category endogenous variables were collapsed into three-category ordinal-scaled variables. The results section presents the best-fitting models derived from a forward selection procedure requiring a .05 significance level for variable inclusion.
Do male and female athletes vary in their levels of idealism toward the student-athlete role? We contrasted the respondents’ perceptions of how they believed they are remembered at their old high school with how they wanted to be remembered at college (Table 2). So few indicated that they either are or wanted to be remembered solely or mostly as a student that these responses were collapsed into the student-athlete category. No respondent felt that he or she is remembered completely as a student in high school, and only two believed they are mostly remembered as a student. Likewise, none wanted to be remembered almost completely as a student, and only five wanted to be remembered mostly as a student in college. This is unsurprising given that the sample was comprised solely of elite intercollegiate athletes.
The majority (66 percent) of male respondents believed that they are remembered mostly or totally as athletes at their high schools. Similarly, about half (51 percent) of males wanted to be remembered mostly or entirely as athletes in college. On the other hand, the majority (56 percent) of female respondents believed they are remembered as student-athletes in high school, and an even greater proportion (71 percent) aspired to be remembered as such in college. It is noteworthy that few male (17 percent) and very few female (3 percent) athletes desired to be viewed solely as athletes in college. As Chandler and Goldberg (1990) found among the high school respondents, many college male athletes appear to want some balance between athletic and academic success. However, the women’s desire to be remembered as student athletes is greater than that of their males peers at both the high school (χ2 = 6.67; p < .05) and college levels (χ2 = 9.54; p < .01).
While a significant relationship exists between how the respondents think they are remembered in high school and how they desire to be remembered in college (χ2 = 16.83; p < .01), Table 3 indicates that over half of the athletes remembered mostly as athletes in high school want to be viewed as a scholar-athlete in college. Likewise, 90 percent of those who believe others viewed them as pure athletes in high school want a greater balance between academics and athletics at the college level. A majority of respondents thus expressed some desire to attain the student-athlete status.
Since sample size limitations prevent gender-specific analyses utilizing all five response categories, the “pure athlete” and “mostly athlete” responses were collapsed into a single category. This gender-specific analysis indicates no statistical relationship between how the men think they are remembered in high school and how they aspire to be remembered in college (χ2 = .232; p > .05). However, there is a significant relationship for women for these variables (χ2 = 5.76; p < .05). Men appear even more likely than women to embrace or retreat from the student-athlete role in college. It is noteworthy that over 40 percent of the male and 55 percent of the female respondents desired a more balanced scholar-athlete identity than they experienced in high school. Together, the findings in Tables 3 and 4 suggest that colleges have a golden opportunity to structure athletic and academic experiences in a manner that will transform this idealism into reality—at least for most athletes.
Does the student-athlete socialization experience vary over time by gender? Figure 1 breaks down by college class the respondents’ stated commitment of attaining student-athlete status. However, the results for sub-categories should be interpreted with some caution due to declining sample sizes. In addition, some degree of selection bias exists here, since the survey only includes student-athletes who retained roster spots in their respective programs over their entire college careers and who chose to participate in the survey. Furthermore, the same students are not followed throughout their college careers. Even after allowing for these caveats, the findings clearly provide empirical support for many of the contentions of other researchers in this area.
As stated earlier, the initial idealism of both men and women regarding student-athlete status is evident. Figure 1 illustrates a drop in orientation toward the student-athlete identification during the sophomore year; however, this drop is much more pronounced for males than females. The proportion of sophomore men who identify themselves as student-athletes is 13 percent lower than the corresponding number for freshman men. Sophomore women manifest only a 6 percent decline from freshman levels. This apparent male disillusionment may be the result of increasingly prevalent role conflicts. Despite the fact that the vast majority of sophomores had completed only three semesters of college at the time they took the survey, nearly all (94 percent) had been forced to forego enrollment in a desired class or lab due to scheduling constraints imposed by team practice or travel schedules. Likewise, approximately half of these sophomores (48 percent) felt they had received a lower grade than they deserved because a professor refused to allow them to make up an exam or other work that they missed due to athletic responsibilities.
The reconciliation stage also varies by gender. Consistent with Meyer’s (1990) study, women dramatically increase their level of commitment to student-athlete status as they reach their junior and senior years. In fact, the levels among female upperclassmen far exceed those among freshman, with over 90 percent of the former aspiring to student-athlete status. On the other hand never again after the freshman year do a majority of male athletes indicate a preference to be remembered as a student-athlete. Thus, there seems to be little rebound from the disillusionment stage among males. This provides empirical support for Meyer’s contention that women tend to proceed from idealism to actualization while, Adler and Adler (1991) demonstrate that men are more likely to distance themselves from the student role.
Do male and female athletes perceive similar reinforcement toward the student-athlete status from significant others? Significant others give athletes conflicting messages regarding the relative significance of academics versus athletics. Table 5 indicates that parents are significantly more likely than any other group to reinforce the academic role. Nine out of ten participants indicated that parents either emphasize academics and athletics equally or place greater significance on academics. On the other hand, seven of every ten respondents stated that teammates reward athletic success over academic accomplishments. Classmates and coaches are also more likely than parents to reward athletic accomplishments, albeit to a lesser degree than teammates.
In a further effort to identify gender variations, participants were asked about the extent to which significant others tended to reinforce either the scholar or the athlete roles. As in Table 4, sample size concerns led to an aggregation of the pure and mostly athlete categories. No gender differences emerged regarding the influence of either coaches or parents. However, male athletes (34 percent) were approximately twice as likely as female athletes to get respect from their teammates for purely athletic prowess (χ2 = 4.42, p < .05). Furthermore, the majority of male athletes felt friends tended to reinforce them mostly or completely for athletics. This was true for male athletes regardless of the gender of the friends to whom they referred. Meanwhile, as illustrated in Table 6, female athletes felt they were more likely to receive praise for athletic achievements from male friends, while their female friends were more likely to acknowledge success in both areas (χ2 = 9.41, p < .01). Female athletes were thus more likely than their male peers to perceive female friends as bolstering the student-athlete identity. On the other hand, male athletes thought that both male and female friends primarily reinforced the athletic identity.
Do the expectations of significant others correspond with the student-athletes’ perceptions of themselves? The last topic focuses on how social agents and other factors correlate with student-athletes’ perceptions that they have the intellectual and athletic ability to meet their own athletic and academic expectations. In this discussion, respondents who feel ill-equipped to meet personal goals are assumed to experience role strain. However, what factors influence their perception of their capacity to achieve these goals? The survey explored a variety of self-reported factors that correlate with respondents’ perceptions, including academic factors (grade point average, high school rank), demographic factors (sex, race, college class), social factors (where and with whom they live and eat their meals), the effects of social agents (expectations of coaches, parents, friends, and teammates), and negative academic experiences caused by athletic participation (scheduling and conflicts with professors over issues related to athletics). The respondents’ athletic and academic perceptions will be further detailed in turn.
The first multinomial ordered logistic model explores the respondents’ perceptions regarding whether or not they have sufficient talent to meet their own athletic goals. Higher numbered categories represent greater agreement between talent and goals (0=the perception of no congruency, etc.). The best-fitting model includes only two variables (p < .01). The association between the set of predictors and the perception of athletic talent is large (Gamma = .881). Respondents were more likely to perceive that they have the talent to meet their own athletic expectations if they felt they have sufficient talent to meet the expectations of coaches (b = 1.62; p < .01) and parents (b = 2.38; p < .01). On the other hand, a perceived gap between their athletic talent and goals correlated with a belief that they did not have the talent to meet the expectations of coaches or parents.
The second multinomial ordered model explores the student-athletes’ perceptions regarding whether or not they have sufficient intellectual ability to meet their own academic goals. The best-fitting model includes four variables. The association between the set of predictors and the student-athletes’ perception of their having the ability to meet academic goals is large (Gamma = .884). Student-athletes are more likely to state that they have the intellectual ability to meet their own academic expectations if they believe they have the ability to meet the academic expectations of such significant others as parents (b = 2.13; p < .001) and coaches (b=4.57; p <. 001). The more they perceive that significant others view them as capable of reaching their academic goals, the more likely they perceive themselves as able to reach them.
Those respondents who often include non-athletes among their mealtime companions at campus cafeterias tend to be more confident in their ability to attain academic goals (b = -1.41; p < .01). Likewise, a zero-order correlation existed between the exclusivity of their friendship networks and their desire to be remembered more as a pure athlete than scholar-athlete (r = .19; p < .05). While these findings support arguments for integrated environments for student-athletes (Killeya-Jones, 2005; Meyer, 1993; Miller & Kerr, 2002), caution is necessary here, as this analysis does not establish such causal linkages.
Students who perceive a gap between their physical talent and the lofty athletic expectations of their parents are more likely to be confident that they have the intellectual ability to meet their academic goals. On the other hand, students who feel as if they have sufficient athletic talent to meet their parents’ athletic expectations are more likely to feel ill-equipped to meet their own academic goals. Thus, those student-athletes who feel that they cannot please their parents with their athletic prowess tend to feel more confident about their ability to reach academic goals.
This section will first discuss the limitations of this paper, followed by highlights of its contributions to the existing body of knowledge in terms of method, theory, social psychological dynamics, applied practice, and as a catalyst for future research. As with all research, the current study has limitations. First, it is cross-sectional, examining only those athletes who were members of their respective teams at a specific point in time. A longitudinal study, on the other hand, would permit a more powerful analysis. It would examine the varying responses of specific individuals over the course of their college careers. Assuming that the athletics department at RH University will grant permission to do so, the researchers of the current study intend to revisit some of the same respondents again during their college careers.
Second, while RH University competes in the NCAA Division I-A, it is atypical of most such institutions in either its composition or its academic climate. RH University is smaller than most Division I-A schools, and it does not have a football program. Sack and Thiel (1985) find that male athletes in revenue-generating sports are more likely to experience role strain. Further, the NCAA has recognized RH University as a leader in advancing the student-athlete model. When the university recently completed its NCAA preliminary recertification review, the latter failed to find a single issue for correction. This accomplishment was a first in the history of the NCAA. Therefore, the patterns discovered in the present study may not generalize well to athletic programs at other universities.
Third, the relatively small sample size prevents certain comparisons among relevant subgroups from being made. For example, any variations among those who participate in the different sports cannot be examined. Finally, the cross-tabular analysis and multinomial logistic regression analysis prevent causal connections from being drawn. However, the empirical evidence is consistent with the theoretical contentions and empirical findings of others.
Despite these limitations, this study does make several contributions to the existing knowledge base regarding student-athletes. First, it is unique in its design, as it provides an empirical exploration of the student-athlete status for males and females competing in a variety of intercollegiate sports. Previous work either explored high school students (Chandler & Goldberg, 1990), utilized a qualitative methodology (Adler & Adler, 1991; Heller et al., 2005; Meyer, 1990; Miller & Kerr, 2002), explored a limited number of sports (Adler & Adler, 1991; Heller at al., 2005; Killeya-Jones, 2005; Meyer, 1990; Miller & Kerr, 2002; Sack & Thiel, 1985), examined only one gender (Adler & Adler, 1991; Heller at al., 2005; Killeya-Jones, 2005; Meyer, 1990; Sack & Thiel, 1985), or examined only freshmen (Papanikolaou et al., 2003; Wilson & Pritchard, 2005).
The second contribution is the application to the specific case of collegiate student-athletes of such general social science theories as Pescosolido’s model of socialization in voluntary organizations (1986) and social identity theory (Brown, 2000a, 2000b; Hogg, 1992; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). In addition to framing the issue within a more broadly framed research tradition, these models provide both a means by which to conceptualize the problem as well as a means of interpreting the results. Consistent with the Pescosolido model and social identity theory, this study indicates that freshmen display a high level of idealism regarding their ability to reconcile the roles of student and athlete. And it echoes Meyer’s (1990) finding that females depart from the expected disillusionment and reconciliation stages of the Pescosolido model. A very high proportion of women enter institutions of higher education aspiring to be student-athletes, and after an early adjustment period, their commitment to that role grows stronger over time. Although entering males also desire balance between the roles, that aspiration soon declines significantly, and no real rebound occurs over time. Pescosolido’s model (1986) suggests that both formal structure and informal interaction may contribute to the divergent experience of males and females. And consistent with our findings and the principles of social identity theory (Brown, 2000a), males tend to receive more “glory” than women for their athletic prowess (Adler & Adler, 1989).
This leads to the third contribution of this study: the exploration of how student-athletes of both genders perceive how significant others reinforce the respective athlete and scholar roles. The males experience greater pressure than females to excel at sports from both teammates and female friends. For female athletes, the same-sex peer groups of teammates and friends typically reinforce the student-athlete role. Thus, gender stereotypes held by significant others may hinder male athletes seeking to actualize the student-athlete role. Any programs (discussed below) directed toward aiding the adjustment of athletes to college must be sensitive to these important gender differences.
More generally, student-athletes’ perceptions of themselves as both athletes and students correlate with their perceptions of how significant others view them (Cooley, 1964/1902). Heller et al. (2005) recently found that others’ higher expectations of them contribute to stress experiences among NCAA Division I female ice hockey players. Coaches and parents clearly have a strong influence on the individual self-concept of anyone in this age cohort, and any unrealistic expectations would likely contribute to role strain among student-athletes. This study found evidence that is consistent with the contention that student-athletes distance themselves from one or the other status when they feel incapable of achieving the expectations of significant others. Considering the previously noted limitations in this research design, there is a clear need for additional research that can speak more definitively on the causality of this relationship.
Our fourth contribution is an addition to the growing list of applied strategies directed at reinforcing the student-athlete status. Previous studies have suggested a number of ideas that have informed current practices. Quite a few universities offer career counseling intended to foster an increased commitment to the student-athlete role (Coakley, 2004; Meyer, 1993; Nelson, 1983). Other studies suggest that universities should encourage a more complete integration of athletes into the broader campus community (Killeya-Jones, 2005; Meyer, 1993; Miller & Kerr, 2002). Still others encourage universities to make a stronger commitment to academic support strategies for athletes (Meyer, 1993; Miller & Kerr, 2002; Nelson, 1983). The NCAA (2007) has addressed this issue over the past several decades, gradually instituting a myriad of regulations that limit the time that athletes can spend on competitions, practice, conditioning, team meetings, and other required functions.
Reforms such as these can be highly beneficial, but scholars, practitioners, the NCAA, and university authorities have heretofore paid minimal attention to the lived experiences of student-athletes. Present strategies do not directly address many aspects of the process by which athletes are socialized into the dual student-athlete role. Role conflict issues are not simply the objective product of such concrete requirements as practice or travel schedules; rather, they are influenced by a student-athlete’s subjective perception of how well he or she is meeting the expectations of others. In other words, self-esteem issues may influence a student-athlete to perceive stress even if an athletic department has taken significant measures to reduce the objective sources of role conflict. We suggest that university athletic authorities direct more attention to subjective factors that contribute to role conflict among student athletes. Informed by social identity theory, our research findings suggest two practical means by which the student-athlete role can be reinforced.
First, we recommend that athletic departments should implement peer-support groups, such as those advocated by Harris, Altekruse, & Engels (2003). They call for “psycho-educational sessions” for freshman athletes covering such subjects as time management, study skills, stress management, sexual responsibility, alcohol and drug abuse, career exploration and development, and life as a student-athlete. We suggest an additional meeting that focuses on fostering realistic expectations for student-athletes in the classroom and on the playing field. Athletes often feel intense pressure from coaches and parents to perform at a high level (Coakley, 2004; Eitzen, 2006; NewsHour, 2001). Under intense pressure to win, coaches often promote dependency among team members and capitalize on their insecurities, thereby increasing team members’ commitment to team goals (Coakley 2004). The entire notion of “reasonable” goals is virtual heresy to both coaches and parents steeped in the ultra-competitive mindset of elite athletics. Our research indicates that such pressure affects how student-athletes define themselves. This, in turn, may influence them to distance themselves from one status or the other if they feel incapable of achieving the expectations of others. The additional psycho-educational session should be held at the beginning of the school year and include coaches, parents, and first-year athletes. Parents and coaches should be strongly encouraged to understand that their expectations will either promote or discourage college athletes’ aspiration to student-athlete status. As these issues are not limited to first-year students, a separate seminar for returning student-athletes could also be beneficial. Such strategies could also be incorporated into established CHAMPS/Life Skills Programs (NCAA, 1998), which are becoming increasingly common at universities.
Our second suggestion is based upon our finding that the vast majority of athletes enter universities aspiring to successfully integrate the student and athlete roles. Social identity theory suggests that the student-athlete status needs to remain the valued in-group, thus relegating “jock” to out-group status (Brown, 2000). The seminars mentioned above and any other programs should not be segregated according to team membership. This would help to create a greater sense of identity in the dual student-athlete role. Zander et al. (1960) indicate that steps as simple as seating individuals together and drawing attention to common experience can foster solidarity. Such strategies would help to reinforce the fragile student-athlete identity. Additionally, while university authorities usually give out annual awards to those who excel at both scholarship and athletics, they should increase the number and frequency of such honors. Repeated reinforcement like this might reduce the number of student-athletes who distance themselves from that status.
Overall, this research suggests that universities have a unique opportunity to foster the self-perception of “student-athlete.” Considering the long- and short-term benefits associated with this status, the researchers hope that this study will stimulate additional studies, especially longitudinal ones. The role played by significant others in the development of the self-concepts of student-athletes is one especially promising avenue of study. And while we do not automatically dismiss the common notion that any dream can be realized with enough individual effort, only a few can achieve athletic glory. We thus call upon athletic departments, student-life professionals, and sport psychologists to develop innovative programming that seeks to establish realistic performance expectations for student-athletes.
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Please direct all correspondence to Jonathan Marx, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 334 Kinard Hall, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC, 29733. MarxJ@winthrop.edu. Phone: 803-32 4657 Fax 803/323-2182.