Special Issue Editors’ Note: Activism in College Sport

Joseph N. Cooper – University of Massachusetts Boston
Cherese Fine – Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Akilah Carter-Francique – Benedict College
Jennifer Hoffman – University of Washington

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Throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, protests and resistance for social change have been synonymous with colleges and universities. From the abolition movement to the women’s suffrage movement to the Civil Rights movement to various anti-war movements, postsecondary institutions have served as incubators for student mobilization efforts to challenge injustices on campus and beyond. Despite the breadth of literature on college student involvement in protests and boycotts, comparatively there is less research on activism in and through college sport. In recent years during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and #MeToo movement, there has been a proliferation of college athlete activism geared towards changing the status quo of society including the structure of intercollegiate athletics and campus climates at institutions of higher education. In addition to college athletes, there are a number of individuals and groups connected to sport such as sport scholar activists (Carter-Francique, Gill, & Hart, 2017), sport journalist activists (Agyemang, Singer, & Weems, 2020), legal activists (Hoffman, 2020), and institutional and organizational activists such as athletic departments at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to name a few (Cavil, 2015).
          Within this special issue, there will be an emphasis on the differences and overlap between activism in college sport and activism through college sport. More specifically, we define activism in college sport as concerted disruptive efforts seeking to alter the structure, policies, and/or practices of the intercollegiate sport system and culture. A prime example of activism in college sport occurred in 2015 when a group of Northwestern football players appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to secure employee status thereby enabling them to unionize and collective bargain with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for equitable compensation, rights to their name, image, and likeness, increased healthcare benefits, and other conditions and resources for their labor as college athletes (Staurowsky, 2014). This type of activism involved changing specific sports policy issues (Hoffman, 2020). Whereas activism through college sport refers to concerted disruptive actions by individuals or groups connected to college sport who utilize their agency, platform, status, and resources to agitate and advocate for social justice beyond the intercollegiate athletic space such as on campus or society more broadly.
          An example of activism through college sport occurred during the 2016 season when a group of football players at the University of Missouri collaborated with student activists at the school to demand significant changes in the racist campus climate including the resignation of the president and (Ferguson & Davis, 2019). This type of activism involved changing campus experiences and social issues beyond sport (Hoffman, 2020). In addition, in recent years scholars have highlighted how activism manifests itself in distinct ways. For example, Hoffman (2020) outlined the following types of college athlete activism: a) demonstrations, boycotts, or strikes, b) legislative action, and c) legal action. Cooper, Macaulay, and Mallery (2020) presented a ten-category typology of sport activism including symbolic, scholarly, grassroots, sports-based, economic, media, political, legal, music and art, and military.
          Within this special issue, we seek to draw historical connections between different types of activism and collective action exhibited by individuals and groups connected to college sport over time, space, and context. For example, efforts focused on gender equity in sport occurred prior to the passage of Title IX. Black women athletes changed attitudes about their empowerment through basketball in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) during the Jim Crow era south (Shackelford & Grundy, 2017). Later, with the establishment of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in the early 20th century athletes and coaches fought for women’s rights in college sports. The movement for women’s empowerment in college sport continued in the 21st century with the 2021 social media activism of Sedona Price of University of Oregon posting a video during the March Madness tournament revealing how men’s teams continue to receive more resources compared to women’s teams.
          In terms of racial justice, Black athletes, coaches, and administrators have been active in demand equal treatment dating back to the early 20th century when they were largely excluded from NCAA and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletic (NAIA) programs and these efforts continue in the 21st century with calls for increased diversity in college athletic leadership positions at the national, conference, institutional athletic department, and team levels. Related to college athletes’ rights, players at Ivy League schools in the early 20th century boycotted games when they felt compensation for their talents was lackluster and these challenges persist in the 21st century in the of legal activism against the NCAA and its corporate partners (i.e., Alston v. NCAA), grassroots and mass mobilization activism (i.e., All Players United and National College Players Association (NAPA)) and symbolic and social media activism with the #NotNCAAProperty campaign (Cooper, 2021).
          Given the vast range of issues within and surrounding college sport, it is timely and important to have this special issue exploring historical and contemporary instances of activism in and through college sport, their impacts, and the future trajectory of these efforts. Empirical, conceptual, methodological, and theoretical perspectives are featured throughout this Special Issue. Contributors in this volume offer critical examinations of different types of activism exhibited by individuals, groups, and institutions connected to college sport.

Inside the Issue

College Athlete Activism: A Critical Race Theory Analysis of Perceptions of Support in the Fight for Social Justice

          Using a critical race theory (CRT) analysis, Molly Harry examined Power-5 athletes’ perceptions of athletic department support for their engagement in activism following the highly publicized killing of George Floyd. Key findings highlighted a general feeling of support for athlete activism, the dissemination of social justice resources, and efforts to create open dialogue about difficult topics such as racism. The author notes how there were noticeable differences in perceptions of support across racial groups. Implications for this study underscore the need for increased education and support for athlete activism across all social identity groups.

Athlete Activism Through a Bioecological Lens: An Asset-Based Approach to Exploring Athletes’ Moral Development

          Daniel Springer, Wayne Black, Molly Harry, and Jonathan Howe introduce an innovative framework for understanding activism in and through college sport over time, space, and context. The ecological systems model outlined in the article contextualizes how activism is grounded in moral development and centers on social justice. The model explicates the connection between process, person, context, and time. Using the athlete activism at the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 as a case study, the authors explained how the identities and statuses of the athletes enabled them to amplify their message of holding the university accountable for perpetuating racist ideas through a playing of a ritualistic song. The process-person-context-time (PPCT) model is useful for college sport stakeholders seeking to create conditions that promote moral development through activism and advocacy.

In the Shadows No More: Making a Case for Black College Assistant Football Coaches as Strategic Hybrid Resistors In and Through Sport

          Jonathan Howe extends the analysis of activism in college sport beyond athletes and highlights how Black assistant football coaches utilize their agency to challenge the racialized status quo. This qualitative study grounded in a hermeneutical phenomenology centralized the perspectives and experiences of eight Black assistant football coaches at the Division I level. In contrast to popular forms of activism such as protests, Jonathan Howe documents how these coaches operate as hybrid resistors who strategically navigate a system that has yet to achieve racial equality in terms of opportunity and treatment. Key implications from the study reveal the significance of different types of resistance such as the activation of one’s agency, advocacy, and activism at the grassroots level.

A Framework for Understanding Internal Athlete Activism in College Sport

          Jessica Brougham and Christopher McLeod conceptualize how athletes perform internal athlete activism to challenge power structures within their own organizations. Building off Cooper et al. (2019) definition of activism, the authors introduce a conceptual framework of internal athlete activism that includes components of organizational behavior. Using the case study of the Grambling State University football player boycott in 2013, the authors explain how internal athlete activism includes a) internal upward voice, b) prosocial intent, c) a clear opponent, d) the challenging of power structures, norms, and mental processes, e) a specific and measurable objective, f) a broader connection to social justice movements, and g) confrontation with a threat of organizational silence. Key implications for future internal athlete activism is presented.

Resisting Resistance: Activism In/And the Political Economy of Intercollegiate Athletics

          Anthony Weems and Yannick Kluch provide a critical analysis of the hegemonic nature of the political economy of college sport and ways in which scholar and athlete activists can engage in effective efforts to enhance social justice within this context. Within their analysis, the authors delineate the material and ideological manifestations of the hegemonic system of college sport. Athlete activism is consequently limited by virtue of the multi-level systems of oppression grounded in capitalism, racism, and sexism. The authors recommend scholar activists engage in an integrated approach to optimize their impact in changing the status quo.

Safe Space as Resistance for Black Women Student-Athletes

          Tomika Ferguson explores how Black women student athletes, who face intersectional marginalization at predominantly White colleges and universities, utilize their agency and resources to create safe spaces as a means of activism. Drawing connections between Black women’s activism in higher education broadly, Tomika Ferguson explains how these institutions are structurally limited in their ability to foster healthy environments for Black women to thrive. In response to these harmful conditions, Black women exhibit resourcefulness and resolve by creating counter spaces also referred to as Sister Circles to foster nurturing and empowering relationship building and personal growth.

Intergenerational Activism in College Sport: A Critical Examination of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Lives Matter Movement Eras

          Joseph N. Cooper, Ajhanai Keaton, and Cherese Fine offer a historical analysis of Black athlete activism in college sport from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century. Using an African American sport activism typology, the authors contrast the convergent and divergent strategies employed by Black college athletes during two prominent eras of Black social justice movements (The Civil Rights and Black Power Movement era of the 1950s-1970s and The Black Lives Matter Movement of the 2010s-2020s). A range of activist actions are highlighted including symbolic, grassroots, mass mobilization, legal, media, and economic activism. The authors conclude that key factors for effective activism in and through sport are strong connections with activist groups beyond sport, well organized collective efforts, and clear articulation of demands. Implications for future activism in and through college sport are presented.


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Carter-Francique, A. R., Gill, E., & Hart, A. (2017). Converging Interests: Black Scholar-Advocacy and the Black Collegiate Athlete. In B. Hawkins, A.R. Carter-Francique, & J. N. Cooper (Eds.), Critical Race Theory and Black Athletic Sporting Experiences in the United States (pp. 85-119). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cavil, J. K. (2015). Early Athletic Experiences at HBCUs. In B. Hawkins, J. N. Cooper, A. R. Carter-Francique, & J. K. Cavil (Eds.), The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Past, Present, and Persistence (p. 19-57). Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
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