Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations

Title

More Than an Athlete: A Qualitative Examination of Activist Identities Among NCAA Division I Student-Athletes

Date of Award

2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Media and Communication

First Advisor

Lara Martin Lengel (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

Raymond Schuck (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Nancy Spencer (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Vikki Krane (Other)

Abstract

Despite the recent re-emergence of the athlete activist into public consciousness, activism among athletes remains non-normative behavior. However, because sport can be a powerful platform for social change, it is important to analyze experiences of the few athletes who identify as activists for social justice causes. As the first empirical study to explore how NCAA Division I student-athletes construct activist identities, this research contributes to knowledge on athlete activism and identity construction in sport by analyzing the student-athlete activist experience through participants' definitions of activism, their constructions and negotiations of activist identities, and barriers to activism. Drawing from interviews with 31 NCAA Division I student-athlete activists from across the U.S., and informed by the communication theory of identity and cultural contracts theory, this dissertation identifies five different conceptualizations of activism: activism as doing something, championing change, being authentic, speaking up, and public protests. Findings document changing notions of athlete activism and reveal nuanced forms of situational activism that do not rely on public expressions of resistance but rather arise from specific situations in athletes' everyday lives. Regarding identity constructions, six higher order themes emerged from the data: motivations for activism, enactments of activism, student-athlete activists' identity negotiations, relational influences, communal influences, and mediated influences. Data also revealed six barriers to student-athlete activism: strict regulation of athletes' schedules and lack of time, isolation from the wider campus community, stigma attached to activist identities, emotional exhaustion, team cultural norms, and institutional barriers. Participants indicated they engaged in activism that does not explicitly challenge institutional power and, by extension, relied on the intercollegiate sport system to create change from within. Finally, this dissertation presents implications for key stakeholders in student-athlete activism in the contemporary cultural climate: student-athletes, coaches/athletic administrators, and governing bodies behind intercollegiate sport, including athletic conferences and the NCAA. By embracing the multiplicity of student-athlete activist identities, this dissertation advocates for scholars and intercollegiate athletics professionals to enhance student-athletes' power to change cultural identity scripts and anchor activism and inclusive leadership in the social description of student-athletes for generations to come.

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