Students respond to athletic report

The recent study completed by the Athletics Committee called attention to a narrowing but still existent gap in average academic performance between “high-profile” male athletes and non-athletes. The Committee cites five potential explanations for this underperformance, emphasizing that no single hypothesis entirely explains the disparity. Some athletes on campus, particularly those participating in “high-profile” sports, have felt targeted by attempts to explain the gap and disagree with the “team culture” hypothesis cited by both the Committee and prior research that the Committee cited in drawing up its report.

Heather Williams, chair of the Athletics Committee, described the five hypotheses as stigmatization of athletes by professors, stereotype threat and conformation to stereotypes, athletes’ prioritization of their sport ahead of academics, team culture and time commitment. Williams says that both the recent report and previous research conducted on college athletics, specifically in the book Reclaiming the Game, argue against the time commitment theory.

In explaining the “stereotype threat” hypothesis, Williams said, “If athletes are made to feel a part of a group that is thought to be worse at academics, they tend to feel pressure about their academic performance, and consequently not do well.” Regarding prioritization, she added, “When recruited, some athletes may form a link to a coach and a sport and make that their number one priority, not academics.”

Marc Pulde ’10, a member of the men’s varsity ice hockey team – one of the sports deemed “high profile” – feels that time commitment is one of the main explanations for the disparity. “I really don’t think it’s about the [team] culture because every athlete at Williams was a very good student in high school – that same culture existed there and they overcame that. Time commitment is the big thing,” Pulde said.

He cited additional hours spent at the trainer, dressing and preparing for practice and lifting outside of scheduled practices as potentially detrimental to academic performance. “It’s at least a three- to four-hour time commitment. We could be spending a portion of that time in the library.” Pulde also noted travel time for away games as an example of the time dedicated by athletes to their sports.

Mike Kearney ’09, co-captain of the men’s varsity basketball team, agreed, saying, “What the school naively calls a two-hour commitment is [really] a four-plus hour commitment.”

To point out the illegitimacy of the “time commitment” hypothesis, Williams cited a study conducted on Junior Advisors (JA), which showed that despite their significant time commitment to their entry, JAs do not underperform academically when compared with the average at the College. “JAs may not be as physically exhausted [as athletes], but they often lose sleep when they have to stay up late talking to their frosh,” Williams said. She also noted that other varsity sports studied in the report revealed no gap in performance. “Many of the other varsity sports are just as exhausting and time-consuming as the ‘high-profile’ sports,” she said.

Williams referenced the book Reclaiming the Game, which studies athletes’ academic performance in three college conferences, as a primary source of information that disproves the time commitment hypothesis.

Ifiok Inyang ’11, a member of the varsity football team, feels that the burden of high-profile male athletes extends beyond time commitment. “I would discourage the simple comparison between the ‘time commitment’ of high-profile athletes and other students because I feel the hours dedicated to high-profile sports carry an extra burden,” Inyang said. “I would argue that high-profile athletes have to deal with some of the most strenuous practice schedules of any sport on campus. You cannot simply analyze the amount of hours that high-profile athletes dedicate per week and compare it to other students because how that time is spent is critical.”

He added, “Combine [time spent] with the pressure to be successful whenever you compete against other schools, then multiply that by the almost ‘expected culture of winning’ at Williams. High-profile athletes’ ‘time commitment’ can still explain the discrepancy in academic performance not because they dedicate more time to their activity than other students, but rather because the time spent carries more weight,” Inyang said.
Kearney said, “What all of this boils down to is priorities. I think that for many athletes in the high-profile sports, probably more so than other non-high-profile sports, their sport gave them the opportunity to come to Williams.” He added, “Call it pride, call it what you will, but these athletes are going to put in the time to be the best that they can be at their sport to give back to the school which they love. This is not to say that academics is less important.”

“The implication [of the study] is that high-profile athletes don’t care about their academics,” Kearney said. “This simply isn’t true. To hold such a study, find the results that were found and assert that they stem from a problem with the vague, amorphous ‘athletic culture’ at Williams without really considering what explains the study, is a disservice to the student-athletes that wear the purple and gold with pride.”
Will Hardy ’10, another member of the men’s varsity basketball team, said, “Overall stigma is that athletes are only at Williams to play sports. I don’t know how you could think that knowing that we’re Division III. None of us are going to the NBA. We all understand that when [we leave Williams] our athletic careers are over.” He added, “In the past, our coaches have told us ‘don’t wear basketball stuff to class, don’t wear a hat to class, sit in the front,’ but you stand out anyway.”

Williams cited a finding from Reclaiming the Game that recruited or “tipped” athletes tend to underperform varsity athletes who were not recruited. She noted that athletes sometimes conform to stereotypes, causing them to underperform simply because their professors and peers label them as academically inferior. To this end, Pulde said, “Whether or not it is intentional, athletes often feel that they are targeted. The recent report is just one example.”

Stereotype threat goes hand-in-hand with the stigma attributed to high-profile male athletes by some members of the faculty. Pulde said, “Athletes have to disprove stereotypes; they’re not given the benefit of the doubt. A lot of times when people see an athlete, I think they assume that he must have gotten tipped in.”

“I have been stereotyped as ‘just another football player’ who doesn’t contribute to [the College] off the field,” Inyang said.
Williams emphasized that many of the students who feel targeted by the recent report are those high-profile athletes who are not below average in academic performance and who, in fact, may be exceptionally successful academically. “The thoughtful people feeling threatened are not the ones who should be,” Williams said.

While the Committee notes “team culture” and peer influence as a potential explanation for the discrepancy, athletes actually feel that their teammates often encourage academic success. Inyang said, “[Team culture] positively impacts the team more than anything. I would say that the upperclassmen of sports teams have a large role in influencing the academic climate in leading by example.”

Hardy acknowledged that some athletes inevitably do pick classes together and talk about which professors’ classes to take. He added, however, “It can play a role in academic culture just because guys on the team hang out together, but there are plenty of friends who do the same thing but who aren’t on a sports team.”

Williams emphasized that the report shows that the gap, while still there, is in fact narrowing, and that it is only representative of averages. She said faculty members on the Athletics Committee are aware, from their own classroom experiences, that many athletes excel academically.