American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Challenging the Leadership Narrative in Sport: An Exploration of NCAA Division I Women Student-Athletes' Understandings of Leadership

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Vikki Krane (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Andy Garcia (Other)

Third Advisor

Sandra L. Faulkner (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

V. Rosser (Committee Member)


Leadership discourse in U.S. sport tends to privilege White, masculine, heterosexual, individual, men (Anderson, 2009; Chin, 2007; Liu, 2019; Suyemoto & Ballou, 2007). The persistent lack of representation of women administrators and coaches in collegiate sport is demonstrative of this exclusionary discourse (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014; Burton, 2015). Student-athletes are emerging leaders in the field of sport and therefore how they develop an understanding of leadership and their leadership capacity should be considered. This ethnographic study explores the perceptions NCAA Division I women student-athletes of how leaders develop, who can lead, and which values and behaviors are characteristic of leadership. My exploration was guided by Batliwala’s (2011) feminist leadership diamond which includes five components: the self, power, principles and values, purpose, and practices. I also applied Foucault (1995), VeneKlasen and Miller (2007), and Batliwala’s (2011) conceptualizations of power to examine how power operates in interactions among people within an organization to influence who is perceived as a leader and how leadership is enacted. Crenshaw’s (1989) concept of intersectionality provided an analytical lens (Bowleg, 2008) to examine how inequitable distribution of power functions along multiple, intersecting axes of oppression (Collins & Bilge, 2016) and shapes the experiences of student-athletes with multiple minoritized identities. The results offered four major findings. First, the student-athletes’ definition of leadership offers an alternative to the traditional conceptualization of leadership in sport. According to these student-athletes, leaders are invested in the ongoing process of supporting team members’ personal and athletic growth. However, they negotiate this understanding of leadership with dominant cultural ideology within NCAA Division I athletics. This negotiation is also shaped by their postfeminist (Gill, 2007) and post-Title IX (Barak et al., 2018) cultural context. Second, the student-athletes’ discussion about their role models affirms the importance seeing people they can relate to in leadership roles. Third, the feminist leadership diamond provides a framework to integrate examination of power and the self into how leadership is defined in an organization. Fourth, the student-athletes’ insights offer the opportunity to reimagine coaching practices to cultivate an inclusive and collaborative understanding of leadership in sport.