More Than an Athlete: Teaching the Whole Student

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In one of my first sections as a Philosophy Teaching Assistant at UConn, I overheard an exchange between a student athlete and another classmate that I will never forget. As the students were packing up and heading out, the non-student athlete made a comment to the effect of, “You athletes just get everything handed to you: free tuition, free food…” The student athlete sighed, looked at him and said “Well, my sport is my full-time job. I spend 30+ hours per week practicing and competing. I couldn’t get a job and pay for college even if I wanted to.” The classmate shrugged his shoulders and left the room. I am not sure if the classmate knew about our student athletes’ time commitments when he made the comment, but I certainly did not. As an undergrad, I, just like the student in my class, had both heard and perpetuated negative stereotypes about student athletes. After witnessing this exchange in my classroom and realizing how unfair these kinds of characterizations are, I have since felt that I have an obligation to learn more about this student population and their experiences. 

To help do this, I reached out to 6th Year Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Dr. Joseph Cooper whose research primarily focuses on the intersection of race, sport, gender, education, and culture. We spent some time discussing how faculty can better understand and support student athletes.

Be understanding while maintaining high-expectations 

photo of the author emma bjorngard
Emma Björngard-Basayne recently received her doctoral degree in Philosophy at UConn, and together with Kristi Kaeppel she is doing research on the role of women’s friendship in navigating male-dominated work environments. Emma is an Academic Advisor and Program Coordinator in the UConn School of Business. She also adjuncts for the UConn Philosophy department and teaches First Year Experience courses.

Building off of my above demonstrated ignorance, I began by asking Dr. Cooper what are some helpful considerations that instructors can keep in mind regarding student athletes’ schedules.

He explained that there is a large disconnect between the reality college athletes experience and the awareness and understanding of those realities from faculty, staff, and students who are outside of the athletic circle.

“College athletes do not control their own schedules, their coaches do. So if they have to miss class, it is not within their control. They do not schedule the practice times, they do not schedule the games, and they are not involved in what athletic conference the team belongs to, which impacts the travel time.”

Athletics also has a policy and protocol in place whereby they notify the instructors about what days students have to miss class due to athletic commitments. As faculty, we can “work with the students and be as accommodating as possible such as, providing them ample time to complete assignments.” This should not be viewed as making exceptions for the student athlete, because, “essentially you are giving them the same amount of time as non-athlete students, were you aware of some extenuating circumstance as to why they could not complete an assignment on time.” For Dr. Cooper, the general ethic is “to be understanding, while maintaining high-expectations for students involved in athletics, as you should for all your students.”

Become aware of athletic microaggressions

As I mentioned earlier, I have both heard and participated in some of the negative stereotyping of student athletes. There have been times when I did not speak up to challenge the stereotypes being thrown around such as, “their tutors just give them the answers to exam questions,” implying that student athletes do not apply themselves academically. This type of problematic behavior and thinking are part of the challenges mentioned above. Dr. Cooper noted that in the literature, negative stereotypes like the ones mentioned previously are called “athletic microaggressions, whereby there are adverse negative stereotypes attributed to students who are involved in athletics primarily based on their athletic identity.”

Dr. Cooper explained that his research highlights that it is not just student athletes’ athletic identities that are tied up in this, but oftentimes “it is their racial or gender identity as well as athletic identity. For example, black males who are involved in sport are more likely to be viewed as “dumb jocks” compared to their peers of different races who are also athletes.”

The idea of intellectual apathy as a stereotype has been applied to college athletes across the board but there are certain groups based on gender, race, and sport type that are more disparately impacted by that.

“I would make the case that those involved in football and basketball, the two sports where blacks are overly represented, are more likely to be negatively stereotyped compared to the tennis team, the golf team, and the hockey team.”

Other common negative stereotypes of student athletes, according to Dr. Cooper, are: they are academically challenged or deficient, they think athletics is more important than academics, and they do not know how to manage their time. The latter a stereotype often heard in connection to student athletes, at times, falling asleep in class. In regards to this, Dr. Cooper explained that if you see a student athlete sleeping in your class and are about to judge them for it,  try instead to consider that perhaps their flight last night from, say, Wichita State might have gotten in around 2am. “The notion that they do not care, without understanding the context, is highly problematic.”

So what can we as faculty do to attempt to rid ourselves of, or at least reduce, these kinds of harmful stereotypes? Dr. Cooper suggests we take time to get to know our students beyond whatever identities we visibly see. This can be done through in-class activities, by setting up time to meet with them outside of class–even outside of your office hours “because we know that everybody cannot come to your office hours due to other responsibilities.” Also, Dr. Cooper highlights the importance of having ongoing cultural competency or cultural empathy workshops, trainings, seminars, for all faculty and staff. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and I think a lot of people have implicit biases and prejudices that they just are not aware of.”  Workshops like these can help us acknowledge the microaggressions we are committing and hopefully assist us in changing our behavior.

Visit the athletic facilities on campus
We also discussed the importance of faculty taking time out of their schedules to go visit the athletic facilities on campus. “Meet some of the directors of academic support, meet some of the staff that work there. By creating more opportunities for interaction and collaboration between faculty, staff, and athletic staff, there can be a deeper understanding of where everybody is coming from. “This is something that should be done on an ongoing basis, Dr. Cooper explained, “I don’t think there should be a one-time, ‘Hey, what is the life of a student athlete like’ and then we leave, it should be a continuous ‘Hey, let’s exchange ideas for how we can make this better, let’s talk about some challenges that exist and given the current structure and policies in place, what are something that we can improve on together?’”

More than an athlete
Lastly, I asked Dr. Cooper how we can make sure to include student athletes’ unique experiences and perspectives into the classroom. Given that Dr. Cooper’s research is focused on the holistic development of student athletes, he emphasizes the importance of incorporating their experiences beyond athletics in your teaching. “As the teacher, you want to construct an environment that facilitates their ability to communicate their creativity, to communicate their multiple identities, to communicate their unique insights and perspectives on the content relevant to the class.” He suggests creating assignments that require student to insert their many identities into their analyses. Empower them “to present content in class, to lead discussions, to lead dialogues, to have discussion boards in terms of online learning platforms. These are good ideas for all students, not just athletes as we are all multidimensional in our identities.

It is crucial to remember that a student athlete is more than just an athlete. “That is a big part of who they are but let them know that you value them as a holistic person.” This, Dr. Cooper explains, will create some cognitive dissonance in your students, “because many people in their lives; many coaches, many of their friends and family, primarily value them as athletes.”  As teachers we can be part of their holistic identity cultivation. “I think that does a better service to them and a better service to our society, as opposed to viewing them either monolithically as athletes or dichotomously as only a student, or as only an athlete.”