A new way to think about college athlete achievement: Strengths-Based Perspectives
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Okay, enough meta talk. Let's get to the newsletter.
Many of you know I come from an educator family. My mom was a teacher, then principal, and eventually, a professor of educational policy. My sister taught in North Carolina, Texas, and now in Brazil. My sister-in-law teaches in Utah. And hey, before becoming a reporter, I briefly taught elementary school myself. All of this is a big reason why I'm so interested in the educational component of college sports.
So our family group chats have talked about education policy type stuff more than, say, USC's recruiting strategy. One of the concepts that comes up a lot is the idea of deficit-model perspectives.
Stay with me here, I promise this will come back to college sports. While this perspective may go by other names, generally speaking, it refers to the idea of a school believing that their students lack certain skills, tools, or core competencies which must be addressed.
Accurately assessing a student's skills is a key part of any kind of classroom setting. After all, no amount of positive thinking can mask the fact that a student can't read. But defining students primarily through what they lack can have dangerous consequences. If everybody in a classroom building assumes you are less capable because of your environment, well, you might just decide to be less capable.
This mindset can creep into how society, or even schools, look at their college athletes.
The 'dumb jock' stereotype can be a tough one to shake. Write a story about athletic department budgets or college athlete empowerment, and you're likely to find comments from readers who resent that athletes get scholarships at all, that they "take seats or money from other students", or that they don't deserve to be there. Hell, sometimes I hear this feedback from faculty.
Harry discusses an alternative model for institutions to examine college athletes, a Community Cultural Wealth, or CCW model. Via her column:
This model maintains that students from minoritized groups, particularly regarding race and class, have different kinds of capital that are distinct from dominant white middle-class capital, but are still useful in achieving success. These forms of capital include: aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistant capital.
Or, as she explained it to me over the phone, "We do need to educate athletes, and provide them opportunities, support systems, and things like that. But I think too often we want to over provide, rather than acknowledging that they have something within themselves already that we can sort of tweak a bit here, cultivate further here, and really teach them you have it already."
Essentially, this is about recognizing that you can't become a high level athlete without developing significant strengths.
Virtually nobody can roll out of bed and contribute to a D-I roster without an enormous amount of effort and discipline. It requires the self-control to perform under major pressures, the discipline and work ethic to constantly train and improve, the resiliency to overcome failure, and the self-confidence to dream and achieve big goals and dreams.
Those are meaningful, important skills, Harry argues, ones that should be recognized by universities, and honed and developed to improve development in other skills.
"Within athlete development, I think you can educate athletes on how these skills are beneficial. How your aspirations, you know, having conversations with coaches and administrators to keep those aspirations lofty, because research shows that when students have high expectations, they're more likely to go and try to achieve them versus setting the bar low, which I think a lot of the times we've seen with college athletes. The bar might be set here, when in reality, you can reach here if you want and maybe even further."
Within the CCW framework, for example, Harry points to the concept of Aspirational Capital, the ability to "the ability to preserve hopes for the future." That might be displayed through goals to play professionally, but it could mean completing college, earning particular academic or social skills, or doing anything else at a high level, despite the barriers.
There's also Navigational Capital, or "the ability to move through institutions", which may be especially important for an athlete of color navigating through a less-familiar world, like a PWI. Via her column:
Athletes in football and men's basketball represent a small fraction of students, but potentially a large fraction of minoritized students on campus. Thus, this group will likely need navigational capital to move through their institutions (often PWIs). Similar to conditions students of color encounter, athletes of color also experience stressful events that can hinder success: racism, intellectual stereotypes, major clustering, and feelings of exploitation. Through navigational capital, athletes find ways to maneuver through such obstacles.
This is an important life skill!
So what should institutions do about this?
In her column, Harry suggests that
"Those working in athlete development units could design programming to help athletes understand the benefits of their capitals and assist athletes in further cultivating their CCW. This would better prepare athletes for their future, whether or not it involves sports."
Reminding athletes that they already possess essential skills and strengths isn't just a feel-good exercise to prepare them for the rigors of the classroom. Harry argues that it's a reflection of the marketplace, and a reflection of what athletes are actually learning.
"Employers want athletes, they want athletes more than they want…the editor of the student newspaper." She told me. "They think athletes, regardless of competition or scholarship level, have demonstrated some skills. That you're a team player, you work hard, that you've developed time management skills. And I just think there's so much there and talking to so many athletes, they don't frame it that way, because they've never been taught to frame it that way."
"So, like, let's have a group of people who can help with that, because it's in them, they just don't they don't know it yet."
She told me about conversations she'd have with her students, some of whom are athletes at UVA. "Why is being able to read sheet music and perform that seen as a form of capital, but reading X's and O's and being able to execute it in front of 50,000 people not a form of capital?"
Rather than trying to cast athletics out of the academy altogether, are there ways that the legitimately meaningful skills developed during athletic competition can be recognized in the academy?
These are questions worth considering here. They're worth considering for coaches, for anybody working in athlete development, and quite frankly, in academic departments completely removed from athletics.
Recognizing other potential strengths and capital sources does not mean, in my humble opinion, that other areas should be neglected or ignored. But if college is supposed to help develop well-rounded individuals, to help students cultivate grit and teamwork and the ability to achieve at a high level, then there's something in athletic performance worth examining a bit closer.
It'd be worth examining across all levels of education, but that's probably outside the scope of this humble newsletter. Maybe that one is for the group chat.
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