Special Admission: Dr. Kirsten Hextrum Discusses How College Athletic Recruitment Favors White Suburbia

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Updated Jan 11, 2022

Special AdmissionDr. Kirsten Hextrum, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies and a faculty affiliate in women's and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma, sat down with Diverse recently to discuss her book, Special Admission: How College Athletic Recruitment Favors White Suburban Athletes, published by Rutgers University Press and available now.

Q: Welcome Dr. Hextrum. So, you were a rower, right? Where did you row?

A: Yeah, I was a rower at UC Berkeley, also known as Cal. I had never done the sport before I was in college. It's becoming less and less common, which is a big theme that I explore in the book.

Though I was able to row in college and have a lot of success as an athlete, I think one of the misnomers is that you become an athlete overnight. I'd been doing sports my entire life, it was just that I had never done this exact sport before. So, it was much easier for someone like me, who has that athletic background, to pick something up later in life.

Q: What made you want to write a book about college athletic recruitment?

A: After I had finished college, I made my way back to UC Berkeley, working both in the athletic department [and] within our academic support unit for college athletes. Coming back in and being behind the scenes of college sports just gave me completely different perspective.

One of the first things that I started to reflect upon was why my experience—I am a white, middle-class woman who grew up in one of these suburban communities—why I had such a radically different experience in college than what I was seeing with, primarily, the football program, who I was spending most of my time within the athletic department.

I originally designed the project thinking about the differences in the Olympic sport athlete experience, or the non-revenue generating sports. What are their experiences first coming into college, and then during college? But before I could really talk about anything that was happening in college, I really needed to understand that pre-college experience. What ended up being so interesting and surprising was really uncovering what these journeys to college were like.

I selected two sports, [one was] rowing because I had an understanding that this was a sport that was highly elite, predominantly white, and middle class. I wanted to pick a [second] sport that I thought would have more racial and economic diversity within it to try to see if there was a different experience in their journey to and within college. Track and field has a popular connotation as being one of the most open and accessible sports that we have in the United States. We think, all you need is a pair of shoes and you can become a successful track athlete.

As I started doing interviews, it just hit me over the head: the experiences that the track and field athletes had developing athletic talent looked almost identical to the experiences that the rowers were having. It led me to see this pattern. Essentially, sports have become virtually inaccessible to folks that don't either live in very high resourced communities [like] the white suburban community with lots of both publicly funded and privately funded fields, club teams, and/or also come from a family with means.

Q: That seems almost counterintuitive. Can you help us understand why it is that something that you would think is so accessible, like track and field, was really not accessible at all?

A: I think it becomes counterintuitive because of how common sense gets created in our society, what makes the basis of what we think should be true in our society. Our culture has been inundated with this notion that sports are the most accessible and meritocratic of all of our social institutions. If someone has both the ability and/or the drive, that there should be no barrier in their way to excel and ascend within sports. But if you talk to any athlete who has tried to do sports knows this is something that requires tremendous resources.

Sports have become highly specialized and competitive, which means is it's going to take more ability to become better in that activity, years and years of specialized training, time, coaching. This idea of something being accessible would imply that you have the resources and the time.

We have this assumption that there are free, publicly available athletic opportunities because sports have always been intertwined with our school system in the United States. But I think there's been a greater public awareness that our schools have never been equal. The ability to play a sport has just become so concentrated in particular communities. Those are the people that are better set up to develop that athletic skill and ability to ascend our sport institutions.

Q: So, is it because of hyper competitiveness, perhaps, that we are seeing college athletic recruitment patterns ending up favoring these white suburban athletes?

A: There’s essentially a nexus of forces at work here. Where you live matters. There’s a whole set of state, local and federal policies that have created vastly unequal residential housing patterns. And really, at the community level, this is first and foremost where you get introduced to athletics. Most people—at least, in my study—are playing sports before the age of four, before they even enter the school system.

We have a tendency in our country [towards] a privatization of all things that were public. So instead of schools being the primary place for learning how to play a sport like soccer, this is now happening through private youth leagues that you have to pay to play.

At the same time, college sports in the United States, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, really take off in terms of becoming more commercialized than they always were. In the first chapter of the book, I lay out a history of how sports became integrated into higher education, and a lot of the contradictions and inequalities that have bred along that long history.

The advent of television led to a whole new set of incentives for universities to have the winningest program. In their mind, if they win more games, that'll lead to better television contracts. A lot of that's happening in two sports: football and basketball. But because that ends up being the most preeminent part of our college sports institution, all the other “lesser sports” are trying to copy those commercialized models with greater or lesser success in it.

Higher education chooses which sports they're going to sponsor to begin with. Rowing, for instance, was a sport that was added particularly for women in the early 1990s as a way to juice up women's rosters to comply with Title IX. Universities made the decision to sponsor this sport, versus selecting another sport that could have the potential to draw upon a different pool of athletes. They knew going into that decision making process that this was a sport that had a long history of being associated with New England prep schools.

This is not an answer [where] we can point to one factor, it's this dynamic interaction across decision making processes that are occurring within higher education, as well as forces that are happening within these communities. How those two forces are coming together and reinforcing one another in ways to create these entrenched patterns of unequal access to college sports.

There's one other kind of underlying part that I forgot to mention—colleges have a special admissions process for sports. Universities themselves have created more elaborate and competitive admissions processes in general, particularly over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century.

It's more competitive than ever for someone trying to get into a university, particularly what we call tier one universities, or those elite, Ivy League privates or flagship public schools. There's still status and prestige that's associated to these universities that has other forms of social and cultural value.

Elite communities are constantly trying to come up with new and creative ways to protect and actually extend their advantages in society. Because the universities have different admissions process for athletes, in general, someone who is being recruited as an athlete often has a lower standard they need to meet in terms of their GPA or test scores. Often, it's quite lower.

More importantly, what I found is [athletic applicants are] not going through the same scrutiny that the academic-only admit goes through. In the case of the athlete, if a coach puts your name on a list and says, we're going to recruit you, and you've met those academic minimums, you're essentially guaranteed to get in. What it comes down to is relationship building with that coach, how are you able to present your case.

People who are in these elite communities have started to figure out that if they take this sports route to college, this is going to give them the best odds, so they're further investing in athletics as one of these means to get that additional access. In my study, there were 47 athletes across both rowing and track and field. About half of them were raised, starting at age four, with this knowledge of, sports are your way in, this is how you're going to get into college, and you are going to pursue athletics above all else as a way to guarantee you get into college. 

Dr. Kirsten HextrumDr. Kirsten HextrumQ: That makes me think of the Varsity Blues Scandal, and how that is just another way to access these institutions.

A: Yes. One of the hopes I have is, I think [Varsity Blues] brought public awareness to something that has been happening for decades. I think it's no accident that Rick Singer, the mastermind behind it, was a private coach for academic college admissions for years. Wealthy families would hire him, and he would try to train their kids to be a better college applicant. That's everything from getting them into SAT prep classes to helping them write their college essay exam. And that's all legal. 

Essentially, there's no limit on the amount of money you could dump into someone prior to them applying to college, and what I found is the exact same thing is occurring within athletics, that it actually does make you a better athlete if you can kind of invest in all of the time resources, training, camps, coaching.

Everything [Singer] did would have been legal if there wasn't the direct exchange [of money] that happened between his clients and the university. I think that's getting missed. These private sports clubs and high schools in these white suburban communities are sharing this information saying, if you can go to college camp and develop a relationship with the coach starting in eighth grade, that's your ticket in.

Q: So if we're looking at this system, and as you mentioned before, the revenue versus non-revenue sports, which of these programs tend to be more diversified? And is there anything that we can learn from them and try to apply to increase equity?

A: Of all the sports at the moment, I think football has more racial diversity and economic diversity than any other sport. My hunch around why football remains that way is because we still have community investment in free to low-cost football development programs. Now, the problem is, this is a highly dangerous sport, least to mention the fact that women are virtually excluded from it in all forms.

What that tells me is that, if we want to have sports become a more equitable social institution, which I do, then we need to have baseline community investment for not just one sport. The problem with football is it's getting invested in at the detriment to all other sports.

How can we have community subsidized athletic opportunities all through the youth experience so that the burden doesn't [fall] on that individual. That's basically what we're stuck in right now. There's just fewer and fewer of those low-cost, community subsidized sports available.

Q: It also seems to be complicated by the fact that our public education system, our K-12, there are lots of sports that are offered, but they tend to be revenue sports. And most of the money they're able to raise is going to be able to feed those programs.

A: Yes, exactly, and I think that ends up leading to problems. I really believe anyone could play any sport if they want. But if you're only offered one sport, the chances that your interests, body ability, the coaching, that all of these things would align are really, really low. If a community had 30 different sports, chances are you will try out a lot of different things. That's how you're going to end up finding that sport that you then want to invest your time and energy into. It's going to allow you to be more successful.

The athletes I talked to, pretty much none of them had done their college sport prior to high school. They had done a whole bunch of other sports, and eventually made it into [a] sport where they found their interest fit. We need more access so that we can get more people into the pool, but also so that those people in the pool have a better chance of finding the thing that is that they want to do.

Q: I would be remiss if I did not ask you about NIL name, image and likeness, which passed in the Supreme Court this summer and allows college athletes their very first chance to earn income. How do you think that's going to affect the playing field? And certainly, in terms of equity, do you think it can help diversify?

A: I think changes to NIL needed to happen. I want to go on the record saying that it is horrendous that the NCAA has owned people's names, let alone [make] money on it. I am not optimistic that this ruling is going to change everything that we've been talking about today.

Everything we've been talking about is all happening prior to college. What I'm really worried about is that NIL actually might make some of my themes I talked about in my book even worse, because now it's allowing folks at the high school level to essentially market and earn money off of their athletic talents as a way to then feed the college admissions process.

To give a more concrete example of this, a big theme in my book that I found from college athletes is that it isn't necessarily that you are the best athlete that gets you into college—many of them had stories of a teammate that was a better athlete. The ones that made it into college would say they were really good at marketing themselves. They knew how to create a portfolio that would emphasize their strengths as an athlete, hide their weaknesses. They knew how to network and go talk to college coaches in certain ways. NIL is going to accelerate that process and really incentivize marketing by putting money behind it.

The families who have the knowledge of how to create these marketing materials, they're going to be in a better position to start doing that NIL work prior to college, and that can end up incentivizing or accelerating their chances of getting in.

Q: So, looking at how this is such a systemic and self-repeating pattern, what advice would you give to anyone who wants to change? To really make a tangible difference?

A: The first thing is for us to really scrutinize this notion of merit. This cuts across all lines of education. We have such this deeply entrenched vision that those who ascend did so on their own without support of others. That is harmful, because it ends up erasing the fact that pretty much anyone who ascends in society had social, cultural, economic means, protection, supports that enabled their success. So long as we think individuals are doing it, it helps give motivation to the fact that we should not have a more robust kind of social safety net.

I think, also, we need to really push colleges to relook at their admissions process. There are these really specific little things I think we could tweak on athletics, but I think it's a bigger conversation that higher education is having and needs to continue to have about who we see as “meritorious and deserving of access.”

An example that we could easily fix tomorrow within athletic admissions, we should no longer be giving athletic scholarships to folks that don't essentially need them. There should be a financial means testing around athletic scholarships, because right now we're having millions, if not billions, of dollars going to folks who otherwise could have paid for their own college education.

Finally, I think advocacy around community access, rather than assuming and normalizing that it's okay for certain communities not to have a soccer field or a basketball court or safe places to recreate. There's all these studies in youth sports about the limitless, positive life outcomes that come from being an active, healthy youth, like being able to just play low stakes, recreational sports, end up with better health outcomes, better education outcomes, better employment outcomes.

Staff Writer Liann Herder conducted the interview. She can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.