Blanket stereotypes are bad but they often come into existence for a reason; the problem becomes when everyone is labeled with the same brush. There is a common belief that some schools, high school and college, are giving athletes an easier time because they have physical skills but not academic ones, for example, and so all athletes become considered "dumb jocks".
Are college athletes victims of stereotype threat the way sociologists contend women and minorities in science classes are?
Maybe, but scholars at Michigan State University say college coaches can be the best defense against this stereotype threat, by emphasizing the academic abilities of athletes and debunking the "dumb jock" stereotypes often believed by the public. A new paper found that student-athletes were significantly more likely to be confident in the classroom if they believed their coaches expected high academic performance. If stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies and create anxiety in the stereotyped group because they worry performing poorly will reinforce the stereotype, people just need more confidence.
"Coaches spend a lot of time with their players, and they can play such an important role to build academic confidence in student-athletes," said Deborah Feltz, University Distinguished Professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University and lead author of the paper in the Journal of College Student Development. They wanted to see what factors influence student-athletes' susceptibility to the "dumb jock" stereotype.
"It's well-documented in the literature that many student-athletes hear prejudicial remarks from professors who say things like, 'This test is easy enough that even an athlete could pass it,'" Feltz said. "They're kind of the last group of students who can be openly discriminated against."
Well, no. White people, men, southerners, Republicans and Catholics are still okay to ridicule at every university in America. There is no liberal guilt at all in stereotyping any of those six.
The researchers surveyed more than 300 student-athletes representing men's and women's teams from small and large universities and a range of sports, from basketball and football to cross-country and rowing.
They found the more strongly student-athletes identified themselves as athletes, the less confident they were with their academic skills, and the more keenly they felt that others expected them to do poorly in school. Players in high-profile sports were more likely to feel they were weak students.
Feltz said the data suggest that coaches who put a premium on education may be in the best position to boost their players' confidence in the classroom, but professors, academic advisers and classmates also have a part to play.
"They don't have to do much," she said. "It may be enough to just remind players they are college students, which is a big deal, you know? A lot of these students are the first in their family to go to college."