Re-Imagining the Academic-Athletic Divide: A Case Study of a Prestigious Institution with Big-Time Athletics

Harry, Molly, Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Pusser, Brian, CU-Leadshp Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

Scholarship indicates that there is a historic, uneasy and worsening marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics (Clotfelter, 2019; Vanover & DeBowes,
2013; Gurney et al., 2017). This dissertation used the lens of path dependence theory, or an institution’s inability to “shake free of history” (Misra, 2020, p. 291), to examine this growing tension at one academically renowned institution with a big-time athletics program. Through 25 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders at the intersection of education and sport (e.g., athletes, non-athletes, academics administrators, and athletics administrators), this research explored the academic-athletic divide focusing on three areas including inequalities in athlete experiences, curricular challenges for athletes, and athlete identity and identity development. In this exploration, four main themes emerged: (1) There is a divide between academics and academics, (2) there is hesitancy to discuss certain athletics-related topics such as amateurism, commercialization, and identity, (3) athletics is the “front porch” of the institution and (4) stakeholders largely perceive that their school is an exception to the academic-athletic divide. Path dependence played a role in maintaining the institutional norms, beliefs, and procedures that perpetuated the academic-athletic divide through the aforementioned themes. Recommendations to challenge path dependence, lessen academic-athletic tensions, and ultimately enhance athletes’ experiences are provided.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Intercollegiate athletics, Higher education, College athletes, Critical discourse analysis, Interviews
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