Dumb Jock or Smart Athlete?

Student-Athletes Face a Tough Task: ‘Role Strain’

While most of what transpires in college athletics is positive, there is a growing sense among academic leaders, the news media, and the public that our society glorifies athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. The increasingly commercialized nature of major sports at the highest competitive levels, and a widening gulf between the athletic and academic cultures at some institutions, threaten to negatively affect the reputation and public standing of athletes as a whole. This is also creating ‘role strain’ for many athletes.


Over the course of their collegiate experience, many student-athletes tend to immerse themselves almost entirely in their athletic role (role engulfment) while simultaneously detaching themselves from their academic commitments (role abandonment).


When individuals are expected to fill multiple roles, they can experience role strain, in which commitment to one role detracts from the commitment to another. Student-athletes sometime experience role strain because of the competing time and energy demands of the athletic, social, and academic roles. But athletic, social, and academic roles need not be in conflict, as activities can be expanded or contracted depending upon the degree of commitment to a given role. Individuals can therefore make time and energy for multiple roles if they are committed to each of them.



4 General Types of Students

There are four general types of students based on the relative degree of commitment to each role:


The scholar-athlete,

The pure athlete,

The pure scholar, and

The non-scholar/non-athlete.


The athletic and academic roles of a student-athlete may be compatible, and in many cases they are, but it is important to know which type of academic and athletic role identities you possess.


The scholar-athlete demonstrates a high degree of commitment to both the athletic and academic role. In this case, the two domains are not in conflict. Rather than experiencing role strain, the scholar-athlete experiences an expansion of energy to meet the demands of both roles.


The pure athlete is almost wholly committed to the athletic role with almost no commitment to academics. Here, there may be role strain, where the commitment  to  athletics leaves little or no energy for academics. These pure athletes (often participants in the high-profile, revenue-producing sports) run the risk of failing academically or merely staying academically eligible to play their sport. Many of  these student-athletes with a disproportionately high representation of minority and lower-income students produce annual revenues for their college teams well in excess of their athletic grant-in-aid. When these same student-athletes do not graduate, universities and their athletic departments are then accused of social and economic exploitation.


The pure scholar represents the converse of the pure athlete, where the commitment to the academic role leaves no time or energy for athletics.


Finally, the non-scholar/non-athlete is committed to neither role. This type of student may be committed to other extracurricular activities such as music, computers, etc.



Strike the Proper Balance of Competing Roles

Regardless of what type of student-traits you possess, student-athletes at most colleges and universities face a quantum leap in the athletic demands placed upon them. As a number of athletes have put it: “In high school, my sport was fun; now it’s work.” The academic expectations are likewise much more challenging, requiring a concerted effort just to maintain the minimum academic eligibility.


The time and energy obligations of college sports now require student-athletes to learn to manage their time more effectively and to study more efficiently. Thus, university student-athletes– even those with strong academic skills and a developed academic identity– must respond to these increased demands by making an even stronger commitment to academics and by expanding the time and mental energy devoted to academics.


The goal of most athletes will be to strike the proper balance between academic, social, and athletic demands that are often in conflict. Since most student-athletes come to the university with a strong athletic identity, the primary task facing most student-athletes is figuring out how best to develop or strengthen an academic identity while simultaneously maintaining a strong athletic commitment. This balancing act, which clearly requires conscious and persistent effort, is no easy trick.



The Consequences of Stereotype Threat

The consequences of stereotype threat extend beyond underachievement on academic tasks. For example, it can lead to self-handicapping strategies such as reduced practice time for a task. In addition, consistent exposure to stereotype threat (e.g., faced by some ethnic minorities in academic environments, women in math, and dumb jocks who know everything about sports but care little about excelling in the classroom) can reduce the degree that individuals value the domain in question.


In education, stereotype threat can also lead students choosing not to pursue a particular major or course of study and consequently limit the range of professions that they can pursue. Therefore, the long-term effects of stereotype threat might contribute to educational and social inequality. Furthermore, stereotype threat has been shown to affect stereotyped individuals’ performance in a number of areas beyond academics– including women in negotiation, homosexual men in providing childcare, and even Asians in driving situations.


Athletes, as individuals, are some of the most vulnerable to stereotype threat. The academic achievement gap between athletes and non-athletes at many high schools  and colleges can be explained by athletes simply psyching themselves into below-average performance. Research has shown that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance.


Athletes are at Risk for ‘Stereotype Threat’

Stereotype threat refers to ‘the perceived risk of confirming, through one’s behavior or outcomes, negative stereotypes that are held about one’s social identity’. As a result, the stigma attached to athletic participation at some selective institutions might trigger this stereotype threat response among athletes, accounting for some portion of their weaker academic performance.


A few years ago, a major study of seventy-one Division III member institutions of the NCAA documented a significant academic achievement gap separating male athletes and non-athletes at selective liberal arts colleges. Although admissions practices (potentially biased in favor of enrolling athletes) might be to blame for this gap, studies also suggest that the perceived threat among athletes of confirming the negative stereotype of the dumb jock might also help perpetuate the gap.


Did you ever hear the expression “When everyone tells you that you are sick, you tend to lie down”? It’s the same for stereotypes such as “dumb jock.” No one really thinks the athletically-inclined are born less intelligent than the rest of world, but as athletes, they tend to get away with less studying and are expected to take less challenging classes. A college football or basketball player simply doesn’t have the time between practice and away games, publicity, and so forth to study as hard to those who have a lot less on their proverbial plates. And, if you call someone  “dumb” and that’s all you expect from them, and you do it long enough, she or he will definitely slump to your expectations.