For many student athletes, life off the field may be the tougher opponent.
Albert Bimper Jr., assistant professor of special education, counseling and student affairs at Kansas State University, researches race and diversity issues in sports as well as the experiences of student athletes in higher education. His goal is to find how the experiences of student athletes, particularly nonwhite student athletes, can be enhanced to improve their education and increase graduation rates.
Bimper played football at Colorado State University and in the National Football League as a center for the Indianapolis Colts. He said the topic is meaningful to him not only as an educator, but also as a former player who has friends and teammates who are unsure what to do since their athletics career ended.
“Some scholars have looked at and characterized the black student athlete experience as being very unique,” Bimper said. “In Division I athletics, black student athletes make up 61 percent of the basketball player base and 46 percent of the football player base. Yet they represent a very small portion of the overall student population and have a lower graduation rate than nonblack student athletes.”
Football and basketball are the highest-grossing college sports. Of the 70 college teams that competed in 2012 bowl games, 51 percent of those teams had at least a 20 percentage point difference between the graduation rate of black student athletes and white student athletes, Bimper said. Additionally, a quarter of those 70 teams had a 30 percentage point difference in graduation success rates.
For an ongoing research project, Bimper interviewed black student athletes at various universities in the Midwest about their experiences in academia and in the context of race. Student responses were analyzed through critical race theory, an academic discipline that combines race, law and power in a critical examination of society and sociocultural influences, in an effort to illuminate a greater understanding of black student athlete experience and the causes of students falling short.
Bimper recently presented his research at the university’s inaugural 2013 Faculty Showcase with the lecture “Is There an Elephant on the Roster? Race, Racism and High Profile Intercollegiate Sport.” He is currently preparing his findings for several academic journals.
In his research, Bimper found that the black student athletes have a complex relationship with sport culture and academics, which may lead to lowered academic performance and degree completion. Often the athletes felt as if their accomplishments on the field were highly celebrated while those in the classroom were not, creating a skewed sense of priorities and expectations, Bimper said.
Many stated they experienced lowered academic expectations because they were athletes and black.
“There are beliefs and perspectives that student athletes are ‘dumb jocks,’ and that burden is greater for black student athletes,” Bimper said. “But what does it mean to be a dumb jock? Based on the data, we could say that dumb jocks are not born, but rather they are being systematically created and institutionalized by the culture of sport that is creating this disparity we see between academic performance and graduation rates.”
Some athletes said they felt as if their options for an academic major were limited because of influences, pressures and lack of knowledge about available disciplines. Several student athletes reported enrolling in a major because they had seen advertisements for it at sporting events or it was simply the major of an athlete they admire.
According to Bimper, universities could capitalize on the increasing trend of high school student athletes graduating in December and beginning college in January. Programs could be offered in the summer that showcase science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — majors as well as critical majors such as ethnic studies. Similarly, programs could offer opportunities for young students athletes to get involved in research.
“It takes advantage of that shortened time frame and bridges what they did in the summer to their first semester,” Bimper said. “When they enroll for classes, they can talk to their adviser or whomever about this really exciting program and how they can keep doing that thing. They have an investment in a subject they care about and will want to see it through.”
Finding time to take advantage of such programs is a considerable challenge faced by student athletes and those working with athletes at a collegiate level. The goal, however, should be to not only graduate, but to educate student athletes, Bimper said.
Additionally, universities could look at offering more STEM-oriented classes and labs before afternoon practice sessions; integrate a multicultural program in athletics programs, similar to those integrated in academic arenas; and introduce a transition program that helps student athletes prepare for the rigors of academia while living in a new city.
“We can’t assume that student athletes have been on a college campus before and that they’ll easily adjust to the new environment they are in, especially if they’re coming from a largely multicultural area to a predominantly white area,” Bimper said.
Bimper said athletics offers numerous opportunities for many black student athletes, though many improvements can be made to enhance their experiences and potential for success beyond sport.
“Sports are one aspect of our society that many believe dismantles race,” Bimper said. “Black student athletes have a complex sense of equal opportunity in the context of sport. It offers them a unique place where they see themselves as equal, though they still recognize that racism exists in the culture of sport. Practicing and playing together helps navigate race, but it doesn’t transcend it.”
This article originally appeared in K-State Today, April 25, 2013. Dr. Albert Bimper, Jr. teaches in the academic advising graduate program.