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Not So Different After All: Examining the Stereotype of the College Athlete
by Alexa Heupel, Mickey Martin, & Madelaine Momot
WRIT 1133: Research Writing
Professor Matt Hill
This paper examines the social perceptions and academic performance among students at the University of Denver (DU). The study focuses on three specific groups within the DU student population: Division 1 athletes, club athletes, and non-athletes. Our research methods include twenty-one interviews, analysis of the grade point averages (GPAs) of all three groups, and inquiry about the socially exclusive image projected by Division 1 DU athletes. Our findings suggest that athletes surpass non-athletes in academic performance; however, club athletes prove to be the strongest in academic performance. In the social context, the responses from all three groups verified the stereotypical cliquish tendencies of student athletes.
As former high school athletes, we are sensitive to the social and academic stigma that plagues the athletic community here at the University of Denver (DU). This stigma suggests that student athletes are socially exclusive and unenthusiastic about their education. However, as we are no longer active participants in athletics, we now identify more with the solely academic students. Having experienced both sides of the position, we could not help but notice reluctance for student athletes and non-athletic students to interact with one another. Whether this reluctance is intentional or unintentional, it is evident that there is a strong divide amid the DU student body. Upon noticing the division, we began investigating the validity of our observations. Although we are focusing specifically on the DU student population, our research findings should be of interest to any college community, as our project provides insight and collective understanding into the social and academic lives of university students. Furthermore, through our research, we hope to erase the boundaries that divide the student body at DU and add to existing research already on the rifts between college athletics and academics.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of College Student Development, Deborah Feltz and her colleagues interviewed 318 Division I, II, and III student athletes from eleven collegiate athletic programs. According to the results, athletes whose identities were deeply rooted in their sports tended to have inferior performance in the classroom because their focus was monopolized by practice, games, and team obligations (186). In addition, the authors found that a coach’s academic expectations play an important role in the student athlete’s classroom success. Expectations include academic incentives such as maintaining a certain GPA to remain eligible to be on the team. The research showed that other control variables such as divisional status and type of sport did not impact the threat of a stereotype (197). In our research, we interviewed club athletes in order to juxtapose the results with the results of our interviews with Division I athletes.
Similar to Feltz et al., Herbert D. Simons and Derek Van Rheenen consider “the role of four non-cognitive variables in predicting academic performance” (167). In “Non-cognitive Predictors of Student Athletes’ Academic Performance,” Simons and Van Rheenen build from E.E. Snyder’s four classifications of student athletes for their own study of Berkeley students. Snyder’s four classifications include the scholar-athlete, the pure scholar, the pure athlete, and the non-scholar/non-athlete, with each group representing a different level of dedication to athletics and academics. Upon finishing the study, Simons and Van Rheenen found that there is a correlation between academic success and athletic performance. When athletes are able to satisfy academic expectations, they can expect to execute their athletic talents and responsibilities more productively; Simons and Van Rheenen note that “[i]n fact, some student athletes actually do better academically when their sport is in season” (178). We predicted that Simons and Van Rheenen’s correlation between time commitments and academic performance would play a key role in understanding our own findings. However, because our sample included athletes from different levels of competition, not only Division 1, we recognized that our results might have a different outcome from the original study.
In conducting our study, we hoped to learn about campus dynamics and social interactions in the DU student population. Specifically, we wanted to investigate non-athletes’ general perception of Division I student athletes in both social and academic settings. We sought to explore the “dumb-jock” theory and see if there is any truth behind the concept. Furthermore, we wanted to see if the classification of athlete and non-athlete subsequently affected each group’s social interactions and academic performance. Prior to our research, we assumed there would be a clear social division between the athletes and non-athletes. We also believed the athletes would perform at a lower academic level in comparison to their peers who were not Division I athletes. Our two assumptions were based on our personal experiences, our knowledge of non-athletes’ complaints that teachers favor athletes and give them special privileges, and the way the media and popular culture portray the stereotypical jock, such as the depiction of the athlete Andrew Clark in the iconic film The Breakfast Club. To understand further and perhaps bridge the gap between athletes and non-athletes, we interviewed club athletes as well. We realized the stark contrast in time commitments between athletes and non-athletes, so we thought that introducing a third intermediary group would provide more context and data when we compared our results.
We interviewed seven Division I athletes, seven club athletes, and seven non-athlete students at DU with a set interview protocol (see Appendix A for a full list of interview questions). The interviews began with six general questions that were posed to each group; however, once each student identified with a certain group, they were asked a set of questions specific to their classification. For example, after we determined that students were an athlete, we then asked them eight questions regarding their experience as a student athlete. Furthermore, we asked club athletes five questions specific to their experience and level of involvement in the club. Finally, we asked students who identified as non-athletes six questions about their lives as non-athletes at DU. We based our questions on our preconceived notions surrounding the stereotype of student athletes. The concluding question of the interviews asked whether there is any truth to the stereotype behind student athletes being less focused on academics when compared to their non-athlete peers and whether student athletes tend to be more socially exclusive. We hoped this question would provide the most insight and depth into understanding the different perspectives non-athletes have of athletes.
Our goal with the twenty-one subjects we interviewed was to represent a wide array of Division I sports and club sports offered at DU. In regards to the non-athlete subjects, we tried to find a combination of students who do and do not participate in extracurricular activities such as Greek life and other on-campus clubs, as we wanted our sample to encompass as much of the student body at DU as possible. Our age group ranged from 18 years old to early 20s. We thought age would be an important factor to consider as some athletes, specifically hockey players, stay in school longer in order to play another year. In addition, for all three groups, we sought to diversify the subjects further by interviewing a relatively equal number of females and males.
To organize the twenty-one interviews, we first divided them into three categories: athlete, club athlete, and non-athlete. After doing so, we began by simply comparing the seven student athlete interviews to each other. Then, we followed the same procedure for both the club athlete and non-athlete categories. Once we made the internal comparisons, we then studied each group in contrast to one another. Following this approach, the interviews we conducted both support and refute our original hypothesis. Asking for the participants’ GPAs proved to be a particularly important and revealing question. We chose to average the GPAs of each group and then compare the results. Our findings include a 3.62 GPA average for club athletes, 3.36 GPA average for athletes, and 3.34 GPA average for non-athletes. We were rather surprised by the outcome because we anticipated the average GPA for athletes to be much lower than non-athletes given that the minimum GPA to play on a Division I team is a 2.0, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) requirements. Also, we expected the time commitment for practice and games—especially away games—would negatively impact the GPA of athletes based on the assumption that they miss more class and have less time to dedicate to schoolwork. For instance, one subject who plays Division I hockey at DU explained that he has practice Monday through Thursday from noon until four. Furthermore, he said, “Fridays and Saturdays I basically devote entirely to our games. We have a pre-game skate in the morning on both days and then a meal and nap. Then, we go to the rink for the game. When we are on the road, we travel all of Thursdays and Sundays too.”
This revelation was not uncommon among the other athletes we interviewed. We found that being an athlete essentially eliminated Thursday through Sunday as possible days for studying. Upon discovering this information, we found it even more odd that the athletes had a higher GPA when compared to the non-athletes. However, we quickly began to gather a better understanding that other factors played a prominent role in their academic success. Such contributions include free tutoring services, early registration to accommodate their athletic schedules, and academic advisers specific to DU athletes. In addition, one lacrosse player revealed that his coach has personal academic requirements for his players: “[There is] mandatory study hall based on your GPA. Under 3.0 GPA, six hours are required, and for a 3.0-3.3 GPA, three hours are required.” We came to the conclusion that this extra requirement provides more academic accountability for the men’s lacrosse team in particular. While most athletic teams here do have obligatory study hall hours, the lacrosse coach introduces an incentive for his players by determining the required hours based on their GPAs. Based on the fact that athletes have more academic services provided to them while non-athletes are accountable for their own performance, it becomes easier to fathom how athletes and non-athletes have such similar GPAs.
Out of the three groups interviewed, club athletes had the highest GPA. While this was initially surprising, we found that both student athletes and club athletes mentioned the importance of balancing athletics and academics. This idea of balance seemed most utilized by the club-athlete population because the responsibilities as both a student and athlete required time management. It is important to note that Division I athletes do manage their time; however, through our interviews of the club athletes, it was revealed that practice was not mandatory—a clear contrast to the obligations of a Division I athlete. Regardless, our findings invalidate the “dumb-jock” stereotype since the athletic population we interviewed performed at the same academic level as non-athletes. Nonetheless, the exceptionally high GPA average of club athletes did complicate our original assumptions.
Understanding the social aspect of the athletic community at DU proved to be far easier than analyzing their academic performance. We asked each group about the socially exclusive stereotype cast on athletes. Overall, each group tended to both disagree and agree with the stereotype. In essence, athletes, club athletes, and non-athletes all recognized that the DU athletic community is socially exclusive to some extent. However, each group came to the defense of the selective bond of Division I athletes. One athlete justified the exclusivity when he said,
We spend time with other athletes because it’s fun to spend time with other kids who are motivated in the similar ways that we are. It’s inspiring in a way. Also I’ve been ridiculed by some of my friends who are non-athletes when I’m too tired or haven’t finished my school work—because of my practice schedule—and can’t go out with them. Athletes understand the time commitment and respect when I’m in that situation.
All groups agreed that student athletes’ collective understanding and mutual respect they share for one another might explain the exclusive community they establish. Non-athletes admitted that they do not entirely grasp the athletic culture, which might rationalize the invisible barrier that separates the athletic and non-athletic communities at DU.
In conclusion, the information we compiled from the twenty-one interviews rejected the “dumb jock” stereotype but supported the stigma surrounding athletes as socially exclusive. Our assumption that athletes perform at a significantly lower academic level proved to be untrue, since their GPA average was similar to, and .02 higher than, non-athletes. Based on the athletic population we interviewed, we concluded that the Division I athletes at DU exceed the academic standards required by the NCAA. However, we realize the validity of our results is limited because our subjects do not represent the entire DU student body. For example, we interviewed twenty-one students out of a total student population of over 6,000. Additionally, although we did try to interview students involved in various sports and clubs with different academic standings, the results we gathered simply cannot be generalized to the entire DU community. One non-athlete’s response embodied the essence of our overall findings:
I do think there’s some truth to athletes being less dedicated to academics because school is not just about grades to athletes. I believe that being in college students don’t necessarily have to have a focus on grades—some come for sports, some come for grades, and some come to travel and experience a new state. School doesn’t have to be about grades and a high GPA for everyone. People on athletic teams tend to be more socially exclusive because they spend several hours a day together, so they inevitably become each other’s support systems.
In the end, we found that there is a general understanding and acceptance among athletes, club athletes, and non-athletes in regards to both the academic and social structures at DU.
APPENDIX A: Interview protocol
The set interview protocol we used for all interviews appears below. Questions posed to all interviewees are numbered; follow-up questions, which depended on the answers to the main questions, are italicized.
Our goal in interviewing various subjects is to understand the social perceptions athletes and non-athletes have about each other at DU. We also hope to see if there is a correlation between academic success and athletic participation.
1. How old are you [especially important for hockey players]?
2. What academic year are you?
3. Do you play a competitive sport at DU?
a. If yes, is it D1 or club?
b. If no, are you involved in any on-campus clubs or greek life?
4. What is your major and minor?
5. How much time do you estimate you spend studying per week?
a. Where do you study?
6. How many of your friends are athletes?
a. How much time do you spend with them during the season?
b. How much time out of season?
1. If you are not currently an athlete, did you play a sport in high school? If yes, which one?
2. How many DU sporting events do you attend during the year?
3. How many hours per week do you think athletes study?
4. What do you think the minimum GPA should be for an athlete to be a part of the team?
5. If involved in a club or greek life: how much time per week is dedicated to your obligations (i.e. meetings, chapter, events)?
6. What is your GPA?
1. How much time a week is designated for practice? Games?
2. How much class do you guesstimate you miss for away games during season?
a. Do you feel it affects your academic performance?
3. How many hours per week do you think non-athletes study?
4. What is the minimum GPA to stay on the team?
5. Do you receive special academic services?
6. Do you feel you receive special treatment as an athlete (from both your peers and your professors)?
7. Do you feel athletes receive special treatment?
8. What is your GPA?
1. How much time a week is designated for practice? Games?
2. When do you have practice? Does that affect your academic performance?
3. How many hours per week do you think non-athletes study?
4. What do you think is the biggest difference between club and D1 sports?
5. What is your GPA?
Overall, do you think there is any truth to the stereotype behind student athletes as being less focused on academics when compared to their non-athletically involved peers? Do you think student athletes tend to be more socially exclusive (mainly spending time with their team and/or other athletes)?
If so, how do you feel about it?
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS
The idea for our essay evolved from an observation the three of us shared. We all noticed that there seemed to be a divide between the athletes and the non-athletes on the DU campus, but we were unsure if this divide was intentionally created and promulgated or if it was rather an unintended byproduct of the conditions of college athletics.
We are particularly proud of our group’s findings because we feel as though they portray collegiate athletes in a new light that encourages a reimagining of stereotypes within this student population. In essence, we decided to research a topic that not only interested us but is relevant when trying to understand the dynamics of diverse student populations in college.
About the author: Alexa Heupel
Alexa is a junior from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Because reading and writing have always been two of her passions, she chose to double major in English and history. She loves studying the past in order to understand how the present came to be. Alexa’s favorite DU experience, so far, is getting the opportunity to take Professor Tayana Hardin’s African American Literature course.
About the author: Mickey Martin
Mickey is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and transferred to the University of Denver from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a sophomore pursuing a major in film studies and production and a minor in history. Mickey enjoys watching movies and traveling the world, and he hopes to one day explore every continent. His favorite DU memory is going to his first hockey game and experiencing the school spirit all around him; it was wild.
About the author: Madelaine Momot
Madelaine is from Orange County, California, and came to the University of Denver to experience the great location, different lifestyle, and premier programs. She is currently a sophomore majoring in international business with a minor in international studies and communication. When she has the opportunity, Madelaine loves to experiment in the kitchen, explore the outdoors, and travel. She also loves the sense of school spirit at the sports events on campus.
Feltz, Deborah L., Seunghyun Hwang, Richard Schneider, and Nikolaus J. Skogsberg. “Predictors of Collegiate Student athletes’ Susceptibility to Stereotype Threat.” Journal of College Student Development 54.2 (2013): 184–201. Print.
Simons, Herbert D., and Derek Van Rheenen. “Noncognitive Predictors of Student Athletes’ Academic Performance.” Journal of College Reading and Learning 30.2 (2000): 167–81. Print.