Young College Athletes See ‘Raceless’ World, Study Says
A new study showing similar levels of agreement among White and Black college athletes that racial and ethnic discrimination is no longer a problem bucks more than 70 years of social science trends relating to racial perceptions of discrimination.
The report, “There’s No Race on the Playing Field: Perceptions of Racial Discrimination Among White and Black Athletes,” appears in the most recent edition of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.
“Whites and Blacks have never agreed when it comes to perceptions of racial and ethnic discrimination. This gap has been consistent since researchers first started tracking social science survey data in the 1930s. Blacks usually perceive that discrimination is more of a barrier than Whites,” says Dr. Tony N. Brown, lead researcher for the study and an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.
Brown led the study as a member of an NCAA work group housed at the University of Michigan. The NCAA and the University of Michigan funded the report.
In this most recent study, researchers attribute this coming together of White and Black college athletes’ perceptions about racial and ethnic discrimination to a couple of factors — that athletes are typically socialized to believe race does not matter on the playing field and that athletes enjoy a special status that many times separates and elevates them from their racial and ethnic groups.
The study’s survey sample included 375 White and 91 Black freshman intercollegiate student athletes at 24 predominantly White, Division I institutions across the country. Researchers collected the survey data in 1996 as part of a larger study looking at college athletes’ academic achievement. Recently, Brown’s research team reviewed the 1996 data to look at racial perceptions.
A total of nine sports for both women and men was represented. Men made up 54 percent of the group, and 50 percent of the respondents classified themselves as “starters.”
Researchers specifically wanted to find out if Blacks are changed in terms of their perceptions of their racial identity and community through athletics. What they found is that students’ “athletic identity” may supersede “racial identity” because athletic teams train, travel, compete and win or lose together, which can lead to reduced feelings of racial distinctiveness and a downplaying of racial division. Also, attachment to a racial group can diminish because athletes are socialized to see only opponents and teammates, not individuals representing distinct racial and ethnic groups.
According to the report, some athletes do not seem to be constrained by racial politics. These athletes, the researchers write, appear to have little regard for their own, their team members’ or the opposing team members’ racial and ethnic differences and identify themselves first and foremost as athletes.
Such athletes become “raceless,” according to the researchers, and may be freed from the ideological constraints of race that occur in other social settings and institutions.
However, the researchers caution that sports may not be the answer to blurring or erasing the color line.
“Sports may work in the short term and in small groups in addressing racism. However, we do not know, for example, how these freshman athletes’ perceptions may change as they progress through college and what implications this concept of ‘racelessness’ may have when these athletes enter a world where race is a factor,” Brown says.
The researchers hope to explore several avenues relating to their findings including a longitudinal study tracking how athletes deal with life after college — whether it is in the professional sports arena or as a person who is no longer an athlete.
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