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Just Jilian… | BACK 2 SCHOOL: The Link between Sport plus Education

With Labor Day behind us, summer is officially over and kids, teachers, administrators, and parents alike have begun a new school year. For sport fans, this means the return of both the interscholastic and intercollegiate sport season. Everyone from youth leagues to high school teams to collegiate athletes are preparing for their respective season in some capacity, which also means the return of balancing between life as an athlete and a student. This got me thinking about the connection between education and sport, and in particular, should one identity take precedence over the other?

I’m of the belief that one should not come before the other nor should they be prioritized as if one is more important. In fact, I know it’s possible to do both well since I am who and where I am today because of my experiences as a student, an athlete, and as a student-athlete. With both requiring practice, discipline, commitment, persistence, and support from others, there is no doubt I gained these life skills and much more, which continue to serve me in both my personal and professional life.

My interest on this subject and the binary it creates was reignited by my current reading of Mahiri & Van Rheenen’s (2010) new book, Out of Bounds: When Scholarship Athletes Become Academic Scholars. In the opening page of the book, they quote how Wideman (1992) “suggested, ‘Our current popular culture would be incomprehensible to an outsider unless he or she understood basketball as a key to deciphering speech styles, clothing styles, and metaphors employed by kids, politicians, and housewives’” (p. 1). They go on to argue that with “the pervasiveness of sport in our lives and imaginations […] spear-headed by athletic icons that inspire us to ‘be like Mike’” (p. 1) or to ‘Go, Girl, Go!,’
The athletic body [becomes] a cultural text [that] is also subjected to particular kinds of readings in the context of schools, readings that invoke coded and often contradictory conceptions of mental and physical divides, of masculinity and femininity, of pleasure and pain, of agency and identity, of race and social class. (p. 2)

In order words, as athletes, and especially as student-athletes, we are subjects who are often treated as objects that are stereotyped and expected to fit a mold. What’s more, these expectations play out based on context, ability, gender, sexuality, power, race, and economic status. It’s clear from what I have read thus far that the book will discuss both the “constraints and possibilities of athletes moving beyond boundaries and trajectories of sporting practice to become professional scholars,” yet that is not what I want to discuss here. Instead, I would rather illuminate how the capacity of individuals, leaders, and institutions needs to operate better to support a student-athlete’s “intellectual and physical growth and development” (p. 2).

On the individual level, I must give a shout out to the physical education teachers—my partner being one of them—who teach our youth that physical activity and fitness is not only fun and can be shared with family and friends but also can be experienced for a lifetime. These are the same teachers who don’t use students as targets (yep, that’s right…no dodge ball) and aim towards teachings a standards-based curriculum during a time when programs are being cut left and right due to funding and/or a steadfast focus on standardized tests.

Furthermore, coaches and physical education teachers are not necessarily interchangeable and it must be stated that knowing a sport or having a love for sports doesn’t automatically make one a teacher. I argue we must hold those who educate our youth whether in the classroom, playing field, or court to a higher standard that ensures the kind of growth and development mentioned above. In terms of leadership, I wish I had a tangible example to share as none are coming to mind. Yet, I believe that developing leaders for social justice in both physical education and sport is one answer. What’s more, I think using literacy as a tool to do so could be critical to creating holistic human beings who also happen to be students and athletes.

Sport teaches us so much about ourselves; why not also improve our intellect? Or why not use our intellect and skills of reading and writing to instead name and understand the sporting world? This level of analysis is something I’m particularly interested in and hope to explore further as a future research endeavor. One institution that has taken note of the student-athlete intersection is my alma mater, Vanderbilt University. Who in 2003 went against the dominant narrative of intercollegiate athletics by restructuring the athletic department into the resource-rich university which in turn dissolved the underfunded department. This allowed athletics to be treated like any other department, similar to physics or English.

Although there were and continue to be many skeptics to this change, the results are clear. Off the field, the average GPA for student-athletes in the Spring of 2008 rose to 3.1, narrowing the gap with other students, while Vanderbilt's NCAA graduation success rate was a Southeastern Conference (SEC) best—94%. From a financial perspective, the Commodores no longer operate at a deficit. When the changed happen in 2003, Vanderbilt athletics were running at a $4 million-a-year deficit, yet in 2006-07, it posted a surplus of $27,000. Vanderbilt's restructuring is symbolic of the University's desire to make every athlete a student, which is the goal, right?!? That said, the question in my mind is why aren’t more institutions willing to make this their focus? I mean the NCAA does state in their PSAs that there are “380,000 NCAA student-athletes and just about all of them will be going pro something other than sports.”

So I ask, what are our intersecting experiences as athletes and students either past or present? And, how did they form who you are today? Just something to think about with the start of a new school year…

~ In solidarity

CALL 2 ACTION: I posed a lot of questions in this post, so hit me up with a comment below or on Facebook to share YOUR answers and thoughts!

Jillian Ross

Jillian Ross is a researcher, writer and learner determined to make a difference in the world. Her work has focused on Title IX and gender equity; the intersections of identity (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.), especially that of Black queer female student-athletes; creating safe schools and spaces for students and teachers; and more recently, educational and teacher leadership with a focus on school leadership for social justice. Although she no longer participates in competitive sports, Ross still considers herself an athlete. Her love of sport began with basketball and track, and has expanded to her current love of hiking in Tilden, working out at the YMCA, and biking around the Bay Area. Ross works and resides in Berkeley, CA with her partner of 7 years.

Ross writes a women-focused blog addressing the just & unjust in the world at