Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Foot In -- A Work in Progress

Linda Bensel Meyers, Tennessee Football's greatest foe (other than Florida)

An excerpt from my work in progress, a working paper in the University of Washington's Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics Journal. In essence, this is an "autoethnobiohistoriography" of College Athletics, or, a story, often told through first person reflection of one's own experiences, as they relate to the experiences of others who that person may or may not have come into contact with, to rewrite the expereinces of said person in a narrative that can perhaps be generalized, though, defined in the contexts which follow, perhaps should not be.

Or, its a story about college athletics. I'm the Virgil to your Dante. See you in hell.

One Foot In:
Student-Athlete Advocacy in the Margins of American College Athletics

This is a story about underdogs who come out on top and heroes who hide in plain sight. This is a story about winning, winning big, and winning the right way. This is a story that I have written both with my words, my actions, and from the unique perspective of someone who has seen the world of college athletics from many related and yet seemingly disparate angles – as Division I NCAA student-athlete, honors college graduate and doctorate-earner, Division I NCAA athletic administrator, faculty member, sport culture critic, and student-rights advocate. This is a story about people who are staunch believers in what American college student-athletics might be, and who realize what it is, and what it is not. This is a story about civil rights, righteous indignation, living right, and dreams realized only after considerable pain.

When asked to list the greatest heroes in the history of college athletics, the names that I will speak about in the coming pages are not ones that will be commonly listed, perhaps even in their own backyards. And I use the word “hero” loosely and not without irony, as one is as likely to hear words like saboteur, traitor, and ne’er-do-well associated with these folks as they are hero/heroine. Alas, these individuals have engaged in what I will define as student-athlete advocacy in ways that have changed college athletics, and particularly the lives of so many college athletes more significantly than any coach, player, or game ever has or will.

This story of promises kept is a promise kept, itself. My own father, a standout basketball player, became an even better educator and advocate for educational equality later in life. Chief among the lessons he and my mother imparted to me were these: 1) Athletics is a part of your life, and though you may define yourself through participation in them – the outcome of that participation should never define you; and 2) Those who would help another achieve his goals are not always obvious – seek them out – and those who would stand in the way do not always do so conspicuously. In short, they encouraged me to live a life that was enriched by, but not dependent upon athletic excellence, and to humble myself to accept the support of anyone who would underwrite my development as a young man, as an intellectual, and as an athlete. This story, in which I identify true heroes in college athletics, subverts the importance of college athletics-related glory to the importance of the often invisible people who support college athletes, and elevates their importance over the more easily observable coaches and teammates often credited for the success of great athletes and teams in college athletics.

This is a story of higher education -- and I wish more stories about college athletics were stories about higher education. The story of Linda Bensel Meyers and Jan Kemp, writing instructors at Southeastern Conference universities (University of Tennessee and University of Georgia) who led local initiatives to examine injustices perpetrated upon black male student-athletes at their institutions. The story of Jon Ericson, emeritus professor at Drake University, who led a nationwide movement to examine the role of athletics in the liberal arts higher education mission. The story of Thomas Foster, a state employee and self-described “Field House Man” of the Northwestern State University Field House, who has played the role of mentor, father, coach, scout, and confidant to hundreds of young male football players whose care was delegated to him because they lacked black role models and leadership.

More than anything else, this is a story of wins and losses, big catches, last-second shots, Hail Marys, and unforgettable performances.

It’s also a story about sports.

Defining a Rhetoric of Student-Athlete Advocacy

The risks associated with college student life is an oft-discussed topic in the media and oft-depicted theme in popular culture, with much of the commentary centering on the all-too-often deleterious behaviors college students engage in and the efforts of higher education researchers and student life administrators to curb them. An emerging trend on many campuses across the country is a focus on both curricular and extracurricular support of students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a need nearly universally recognized, though, much more difficult to provide resources for particularly in budget cut environments. While underage alcohol use and binge drinking plague many college campuses, and a lack of resources for students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds challenge other campuses, scandals surrounding college student-athletes, particularly at “big-time” NCAA Division I programs have touched almost all campuses. A key difference between the reaction to athletics-focused crises is that while the associated challenges of alcohol/drug abuse, and racial and cultural harmony and diversity are causes that university administrations and alumni rally behind, scandals in college athletics are typically occasions in which university administrators and alumni vilify and condemn college students for their actions.

As a result of this peculiar tendency, in the past two decades, a number of higher education cultural theorists have begun to consider, specifically, the ways in which black, male, scholarship athletes in revenue-generating sports (primarily basketball and football) at NCAA Division I institutions are further hindered in their ability to successfully matriculate because of the myriad stresses that elite-level athletic competition places on them, and how the pressures of the limelight negatively impact them. Their collective claim is that the culture of elite athletics often fails to promote academic excellence, and that media-related distractions, time spent traveling, practicing, working out, and preparing for competitions, and the physical and mental stress athletes often incur serve to prevent many of them from focusing on schoolwork and graduating (See Zimbalist, 2001; Thelin, 1996; Sperber, 2001; and Lapchick, 2005). Their claims have been borne out by NCAA-calculated statistics over the past 20 years that suggest that black male student-athletes in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball graduate at rates substantially lower than their white male counterparts (Lapchick 2005, NCAA Graduation Rate Data 1990-2005). This evidence suggests that the interventions and traditional forms of advocacy available to many black male student-athletes have not sufficed. In the instances I will highlight in this essay, I will profile the dramatic lengths that educators have gone to and in doing so, attempt to define a rhetoric of student-athlete advocacy that successfully intercedes on behalf of black male student-athletes.

(to be continued)


[1] This is not to suggest, of course, that most college athletic departments fail to provide resources for student-athletes that would minimize their participation in risky behaviors and provide support to ensure their successful matriculation. Quite the contrary; from mandates adopted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) down to the provision of CHAMPS/Life Skills programs and academic support units on each campus, student-athletes are uniquely assisted in their efforts.

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