Although a preponderance of extant research has linked high school sports participation with positive academic outcomes, this study suggests that the relationship may not be as robust as previously believed. In fact, its strength and direction appear to be contingent upon the gender and race of the adolescent, the dimension of athletic involvement under consideration, and the time span over which predictor and outcome are measured. Examining differences in the impact of two dimensions of adolescent athletic involvement (jock identity and athlete status) on changes in school grades and school misconduct approximately two years later, we found that adolescents who claimed the label of “jock” reported more subsequent misconduct than those who did not. Moreover, female (and to a lesser extent black) jocks reported lower grades than their nonjock peers, whereas female athletes reported higher grades than female nonathletes. Athletic participation also had a significantly less salutary effect on girls than on boys with respect to school misconduct. These findings raise questions, and point to several promising directions for future inquiry, within the context of the larger debate on the linkage between sports and the adolescent school experience.
Considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to the relationship between adolescent athletic participation and educational outcomes such as academic achievement, absenteeism, misconduct, and school attachment. Most studies can be clearly located on either side of a longstanding theoretical divide, favoring or opposing interscholastic sports (see Braddock, 1981
; Marsh, 1992
for review of the debate). Developmental theorists argue that athletic participation contributes to better academic performance by developing skills, habits, and values transferrable to the classroom, integrating students into a prosocial network of adults and peers, providing tangible incentives to stay in school and get good grades, and increasing commitment to the school (Marsh & Kleitman, 2003
; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1990
). Zero-sum theorists counter that the resources adolescents devote to competing pursuits are finite; when young athletes’ time and energy, as well as the resources of their schools and communities, are diverted from the classroom to extracurricular activities such as sports, academic objectives are undermined (Coleman, 1961
; Hauser & Lueptow, 1978
At the high school level, links between sports involvement and academic outcomes have for the most part been largely positive; student athletes tend to have higher grades, less absenteeism, fewer discipline referrals, stronger internal locus of control, and better odds of aspiring to–and completing–a college education (Eccles & Barber, 1999
; Fejgin, 1994
; Marsh, 1993
; Videon, 2002
). However, this body of findings has been plagued by small effect sizes and, in some cases, puzzling inconsistencies. For example, Hauser and Lueptow (1978)
found that, although athletes’ grades improved over the course of their high school careers, the gains were smaller than those of nonathletes. More recently, Hanson and Kraus (1998)
observed that athletic participation had a positive effect on the science-related experiences of white female adolescents but the opposite effect for black female adolescents. Fisher, Juszczak, & Friedman (1996)
found no association at all between athletics and the academic performance of inner-city adolescents.
One reason for weak or inconsistent findings may be that the relationships between athletic participation and positive school outcomes are selective rather than causal; that is, those adolescents who do well in high school are also those who choose to participate in school sports (Barron, Ewing, & Waddell, 2000
). Studies that take into account background characteristics tend to find weaker correlations between sports participation and GPA (Holland & Andre, 1987
). There is also considerable uncertainty regarding the shelf life of athletic effects. Strong positive associations between sports participation and concurrent academic performance may dissipate or even turn negative if predictor and outcome variables are measured several years apart.
A second explanation is that the relationship between sports participation and school outcomes is not monolithic. Some studies have examined the role of gender (Hanson & Kraus, 1998
; Videon, 2002
) or race (Melnick, Sabo, & Vanfossen, 1992
; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1990
; Wells & Picou, 1980
) as potential moderators of the link between athletic participation and academics. Eide and Ronan (2001)
found disparate effects of high school sports participation on educational attainment for white males (negative impact), white females and black males (positive impact), and black females and Hispanics of either gender (no significant impact). However, except for Eccles and her colleagues (Eccles & Barber, 1999
; Barber et al., 2001
), most previous research on academic performance has not addressed the distinction between what athletes do (e.g., participation in sports) and how they perceive themselves (e.g., identification as a “jock”). The present study has examined how gender and race interact with dimensions of athletic involvement to predict academic outcomes.
Several tentative conclusions may be derived from careful examination of these findings. First, the lagged effects of athletic involvement on academic outcomes several years later were far less favorable than contemporaneous, cross-sectional effects widely documented in the extant literature. Neither jock identity nor athlete status was unequivocally associated with improved subsequent academic performance. Developmental theorists posit that participation in organized sports enhances attachment to school, provides constructive guidance and adult supervision, reinforces prosocial values, and teaches skills that spill over into the classroom. In light of our results, however, it may be that the short-term athletic benefits identified by developmental researchers derive more from the immediate context of participation (e.g., team rules about absences or minimum GPA requirements) than from longer-term developmental processes. Another powerful influence on positive school outcomes lies in the preexisting characteristics of adolescents who self-select into athletic programs.
Second, the potentially beneficial effects of athletic involvement appear to be contingent on the dimension of involvement under consideration. For example, female athletes enjoyed a small but significant GPA advantage over female nonathletes; but female and black respondents who identified themselves as jocks reported lower GPAs than those who did not. That a jock identity is not conducive to enhanced academic performance for these adolescents is not entirely surprising. A limited body of previous research has documented troubling links between jock identity and such problem behaviors as heavy drinking and binge drinking (Ashmore, Del Boca, & Beebe, 2002
; Miller, Hoffman, Barnes, Farrell, Sabo, & Melnick, 2003
), violence and bullying (Miller, Melnick, Farrell, Sabo, & Barnes, forthcoming; Wilson, 2002
), and sexual risk-taking (Miller, Farrell, Barnes, Melnick, & Sabo, in press
). However, to date, this emerging picture has seemed to suggest a “toxic jock” effect that is strongest for white boys. In the present analysis, conversely, white boys actually proved the exception; a jock identity had no significant adverse effect on grades for this subgroup. This finding was unexpected. It may be that where academic performance is concerned, the jock label constitutes less of a departure from the norm for white boys than it does for female or black adolescents, thus weakening its negative impact on their educational outcomes.1
Third, the relationships among athlete status, gender, and adolescent school misconduct were inconsistent. Participation in sports was associated with marginally more misconduct for girls and marginally less misconduct for boys; although neither finding alone was statistically remarkable, the gender difference was statistically significant. This unexpected finding has no clear precedent; in fact, the few previous studies that have directly examined links between female athletic participation and school misconduct found that female high school athletes were less likely to break school rules and regulations than their nonathlete peers (Buhrmann, 1977
; Buhrmann & Bratton, 1978
; Fejgin, 1994
). Assuming that our results can be replicated in future studies, they may indicate the interplay of several developmental and psychosocial processes. First, school-based sports place the participant at the center of a social network that reinforces commitment to the school (Marsh, 1992
) and mandates conformity to conventional expectations. Because nonconformity with school and team norms may result in suspension or even expulsion from the team, misconduct thus becomes a criterion for selection out of sports. This combination of restraints helps explain the negative relationship between athletic participation and school misconduct for boys.
However, the processes that may account for reduced misconduct by male athletes do not explain why female athletes actually tended toward more frequent misconduct than female nonathletes. We speculate that the institutional fit between adolescent girls and the athlete role may be less comfortable than it is for boys. Mainstream acceptance of girls as bona fide athletes is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditional, hegemonic cultural scripts for feminine behavior–what Connell (1995)
described as “emphasized femininity”–left little room for the dirt, sweat, and overt physical competition of organized sports. Even though such behavior has grown more acceptable in recent years, it may well be that female athletes still experience more role conflict between the demands of the playing field and the demands of the classroom than their male counterparts do, one manifestation of that conflict being school misconduct. Ironically, it may also be the case that, whereas boys who get into trouble are selectively filtered out of sports, girls who get into trouble are selectively filtered into sports because they are disproportionately amenable to violating conventional gender norms regarding assertiveness, competition, and physicality.
In the absence of more data, this interpretation remains purely speculative. The present study is however consistent with previous findings that other, nonacademic concommitants of school athletic participation and jock identity differ by gender (e.g., Miller, Sabo, Farrell, Barnes, & Melnick, 1998
; Sabo, Miller, Farrell, Melnick, & Barnes, 1999
) and race (e.g., Miller et al., in press
). Future researchers will need to address how gender and/or racial differences specifically impact the relationship between athletic involvement and academic outcomes.
This study also confirms the importance of distinguishing among dimensions of athletic involvement. It also highlights the need to develop better instruments for doing so. In particular, jock identity is a more nebulous construct than most other sport-related measures. Unlike athlete status or frequency of athletic activity, which are subject to faulty recollection but nevertheless lend themselves to objective assessment, “jock identity” relies on the adolescent’s more subjective, self-reported perception. Furthermore, although there are distinct and mutually exclusive literatures which examine the behavioral implications of athletic participation (e.g., Crosnoe, 2002
; Marsh & Kleitman, 2003
; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1990
), athletic identity (e.g., Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993
; Horton & Mack, 2000
; Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998
), and affiliation with the “jock” peer crowd (e.g., Brown, Eicher, & Petrie, 1986
; Eckert, 1989
; La Greca, Prinstein, & Fetter, 2001
), little formal theorization (and almost no empirical research) has been devoted to understanding the differences between an “athlete” and a “jock.” The few researchers who have explicitly drawn this distinction have generally found that the two constructs overlap less than might be expected (e.g., Barber et al., 2001
; Miller et al., in press
Athletes and jocks are not the same. Athletes are valorized in popular culture; in contrast, the label of jock is perceived by many as a derogatory term that connotes ignorance (e.g., “dumb jock”). Together they represent the two faces of sport: one ascetic and disciplined, the other gregarious and risk-oriented. In this study, we have examined some of the contrasting implications of these distinct and often conflicting constructs. However, our measure of jock identity–while conventionally used in peer crowd research–did not directly probe the subjects’ interpretation of the jock label, nor its confirmation by others. We were thus unable to explore how or if the meanings conventionally assigned to this label might differ between genders or races, or indeed even within a single gender (Miller et al., in press
; Miller et al., forthcoming; Pascoe, 2003
). Future data collection might profitably frame jock identity by developing a multi-item indicator comparable to Brewer et al.’s 1993
Athletic Identity Measurement Scale. Likewise, our dichotomous measure of objective athlete status could not capture nuances such as the intensity, frequency, or type of athletic activity, all of which might condition the relationship between sports participation and educational outcomes.
This study has examined how race and gender interact with two dimensions of athletic involvement to predict academic outcomes. The issues raised are of particular importance today, as more school districts and communities face fiscally-imposed decisions about which extracurricular activities and programs to cut. Previous research has suggested that school-sponsored athletic programs may help promote favorable academic outcomes. Our findings constitute a warning sign that such programs are no panacea, particularly when they promote a “jock” ethos, and must be considered time-sensitive as well. To the extent that athletic programs are designed to enhance the adolescent educational experience, they must be tailored in such a way as to discourage engendering a jock identity among the participants.