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College Sports as an Institutionalized Foreclosure to be presented at 2020 NASSM conference


Student-athletes, in comparison to most college students in the US, navigate different ecosystems as they matriculate through college. Student-athletes often face demands that necessitate the ability to balance multiple roles, interests, and goals, making their collegiate experience distinct from the general student body (Gayles & Hu, 2009; Jolly 2008). The physical fatigue, pressures to perform, and extensive time demands of athletics often leave athletes with limited time and energy to pursue a quality education or engage in social, professional, and non-athletic activities (Denny & Steiner, 2009; Wendling, Kellison, & Sagas, 2017). Despite the aforementioned evidence that describes the process of student-athlete development, a conceptual framework that amalgamates insights from the sociological, organizational and developmental psychology literature has yet to be advanced. Similar models have served as catalysts for advancing research on college student development (e.g., Cote, 2006) and interventions that better shape the development of young adults matriculating through American colleges.


Organizational ecology theory advances that workplaces are complex systems in which both social and physical systems co-construct work processes, organizational cultures, and policies (Becker, 2007). The purpose of this study is to introduce an integrative perspective on the identity development of student-athletes that is informed by organizational ecology theory and framed on the emerging adulthood and identity formation literature (viz., Arnett, 2004; Cote, 2006). The model provides evidence of a clear dichotomy in the ecological systems that shape American college athletes’ experiences in comparison to their non-athlete peers.


On the one end of the spectrum, we described a developmental pathway that is anchored by an institutionalized moratorium (IM) ecological system. Although developmental challenges of institutionalized moratoria are recognized, most college students can benefit from this system as it provides them with an extended period of time in which they can explore various aspects of their life prior to fully endorsing identity commitments for adulthood. Indeed, college students today are exposed to a broad range of options, increasing their possibilities pertaining to work, ideological worldviews, and relationships (Arnett, 2002).


On the other end of this developmental spectrum, we advanced that intercollegiate athletics is comparable to an institutionalized foreclosure (IF) ecological system. This pathway requires student-athletes to matriculate in a system that is regimented and controlled (e.g., by NCAA policies, coaches) and leaves little freedom to explore interests and experiences outside of athletics. The foreclosure aspects of this life phase refer to highly restrictive and constrictive social and cultural expectations, norms, and experiences that the college sport system demands of college athletes (Menke, 2010). Some of the repercussions of this system include limited career identity beyond sport, making the transition to life after college sport and into adulthood more intricate to navigate.


The model outlines specific propositions that predict developmental benefits and costs of each pathway and provides college sport researchers with several future directions. Further, intervention strategies are offered that could alleviate the costs of the IF developmental pathway. Recommendations framed on a balanced developmental pathway, which lies in between the IM-IF spectrum, provide the most viable solutions for organizational change and policy efforts.

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