There was an interesting piece in Insider Higher Ed last month describing research on why athletes at liberal arts colleges sometimes underperform in the classroom. Since the publication of William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s 2001 influential study, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, educators have debated the proper role of intercollegiate athletics at colleges like Middlebury. This debate was hotter six or seven years ago than it is now, but there is no doubt that Bowen and Shulman’s book and their follow-up study, Reclaiming the Game, which focuses on NESCAC schools, had a profound impact on higher ed. The Division III section of the NCAA formally took up the question of “integration”—based on the concern that sports programs were drifting away from the general academic mission of liberal arts education—colleges recalibrated admissions standards for recruited athletes, and additional research initiatives followed in the wake of The Game of Life. The most important of these initiatives, the Mellon-sponsored College Sports Project, is involved in assessing a vast database of scores and grades in an effort to understand how athletes’ academic performances relate to their non-athletic peers’. In fact, our own John Emerson, Professor of Mathematics and former Secretary of the College, is a principal investigator on this project.
But the research highlighted in the Inside Higher Ed article is worth noting for its difference from the thinking that has marked this debate in the past. Whereas Bowen, Shulman, and others have suggested that athletes tend to underperform because their academic credentials are weaker coming in (they get an edge in admissions) or because they are rooted in an “athletic culture” and don’t care as much as they should about their academic work, Thomas S. Dee, an economist at Swarthmore, is now arguing that college athletes are vulnerable to “stereotype threat.” As Dee explains, 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. More specifically, its key conjecture is that the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype can create an anxiety that disrupts cognitive performance and influences outcomes and behaviors.” In other words, student athletes who are anxious about being perceived as “dumb jocks” may unwittingly confirm that image when they are under pressure to perform well on tests or other academic assignments. But tell them that the exam they are about to take is just as often aced by athletes as by non-athletes—blunt the threat of stereotype—and they do fine.
The glib response to this study is hard to resist: if we all banished the image of the dumb jock from our minds and stopped examining the phenomenon of athletes’ underperformance, then maybe the problem would just go away. Of course, this simple solution is far more complex than it might seem. Changing attitudes is no easy thing, and in this case, the athletes themselves internalize the stereotype; it is a matter of culture. Then, too, there are other compelling explanations for the so-called underperformance of athletes at elite liberal arts colleges (and here I should note that some researchers have argued that the problem of underperformance is not as pronounced as some have argued it is), beginning with the relatively weaker academic credentials that athletic recruits may bring to college.
But the idea that stereotypes can negatively influence the attitudes of individuals who are targets of stereotypical thinking is a powerful concept. In fact, the scholar most responsible for pioneering this concept, Claude Steele, was on campus in September talking about how stereotype threats can hamper the intellectual performance of minorities and women. To think of athletes in this way, as having to overcome some of the same obstacles that these groups confront, is provocative to say the least.