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A comparison of athlete and student identity for Division I and Division III athletes.

Research within the field of sport psychology has investigated the existence of an identity among student-athletes that separates them from the non-athlete student population. Specifically, this athlete identity refers to the "degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role" (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993, p. 237). Various researchers have discussed the relationship of this athlete identity to such factors as career maturity (e.g., Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996) and transition (e.g., Parker, 1994). However, there is a gap in the literature concerning the degree of athlete identity among different athlete populations, such as Division I and III athletes. Specifically, it is known that Division I and Division III colleges and universities function differently with respect to expectations of athletes for athletic performance and the focus required on education (Coakley 2009; NCAA, 2009a, 2009b). However, it is unknown whether athletes who attend institutions at these various levels differ when reporting their level of athlete identity. Further, there is very little information concerning the level of student identity among student-athletes.

The concept of identity relates to, at its roots, an individual's perception of(him or her) self. Various theories within psychology have commented on this idea of self. Gergen (1971) discussed the theory of self as involving not a single conception, but rather multiple concepts embodied in an individual. In terms of the proposed research, it is possible for an individual to have both athlete and student identities. Markus and Wurf (1987) referred to this idea as the "multifaceted self-concept," because the self is not defined by a single label, but involves various roles an individual takes on during his or her life. Marsh and Shavelson (1985) took the theory of the multifaceted self one step further and suggested that some self-concepts are situation-specific. For example, it is possible for an individual to perceive him- or herself as an athlete in one situation and a student in another. This contention allows for the collegiate athlete to change his or her perception regarding self based on the context in which life is currently being experienced.

Research on Division I student-athletes suggests that athlete identity exists more strongly than one's student identity. In perhaps the best known studies on the subject, Adler and Adler (1985, 1991) conducted longitudinal studies with male basketball players at big-time universities. They found that, although many of the athletes came into college (as freshmen) with optimistic views about academics, after about their first year, they began to sense the lack of importance placed on academics. As a result, the athletes began taking easy courses and majors, with the sole purpose of sustaining eligibility as they progressed through their college career. Thus, collegiate athletes who strongly commit themselves to their team or peer athletes may find it difficult to properly develop a balanced student-athlete identity (Marx et al., 2008). However, in a national study of 18 Division I universities (n = 930, upper-classmen, who had completed at least 85 credit hours) Potuto and O'Hanlon (2006) found no evidence that educational experiences were lacking for student athletes. Specifically, 91.7% of the respondents believed they had a well-rounded educational experience, 81% agreed with the premise that their education had prepared them well for life after college, 74.9% of student-athletes stated that they would have attended a four-year institution even if they had not played a varsity sport. While this data seems conclusive, it is important to remember that Potuto and O'Hanlon only surveyed athletes near the completion of their degree. Therefore, because this national study contradicts well-known previous longitudinal works of Adler and Adler (1985, 1991), athlete and student identities should be re-examined across class level. Overall, literature focusing on Division I sports reveals the ubiquitous focus of collegiate athletes as professionals and not as student-athletes (Sperber, 2000; Zimbalist, 1999). Although some studies have found that female student-athletes were successfully able to balance the roles of collegiate student and athlete (Meyer, 1990; Miller & Kerr, 2002; Riemer, Beal, & Schroeder, 2000), research with male student-athletes suggests the opposite trend (see Marx et al., 2008 for a review). These athletes are expected to place a greater amount of time and effort into training, practicing, and competing. As the majority of society views it, these individuals are at college to play sports.

However, the perception that (male) athletes attend college to succeed in their sport first, and the classroom second, may not always hold true at lower levels of competition. Specifically, Coakley (2009) discussed the main differences between Division I and Division III athletic programs, where the former focuses on generating revenue and the latter strives to maintain the mission of higher education. While this distinction may make intuitive sense, Cantor and Prentice (1996) discovered that Division III athletes experience an identity strain because the demands of their sport far exceed that of any other extracurricular activity. Yet, with two-thirds of the very same participants from the former study, Richards and Aries (1999) found that the GPA's of these Division III collegiate athletes did not significantly differ from their non-athlete counterparts, implying a proper balance of student and athlete identities. Finally, when the latter study is coupled with the fact that student-athletes are generally satisfied with their college experience (Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007), it is clear that inconsistencies exist in ways athletes conceptualize their roles.

One avenue to explore athlete and student identity is the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS; Brewer et al., 1993). In four studies conducted to determine its reliability and validity, internal consistency and test-retest reliability were established (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1990, 1991; Brewer et al., 1993; Hale & Waalkes, 1994). Additionally, the AIMS is a valid and reliable measure that has consistently been used to assess one's level of athlete identity. Using this scale, researchers have found that a high level of athlete identity is associated with low levels of career maturity (Murphy et al., 1996), very little focus placed on academics (Parker, 1994), difficulty balancing other life roles (Balague, 1999), and low career decisionmaking self-efficacy (Brown, Giastetter-Fender, & Shelton, 2000). Overall, the more that student-athletes identify with the role of an athlete on this measure, the less focus they place on academics during their college years. This potentially weak focus on academics during college has repercussions for athletes after their collegiate athletic participation. In particular, Parker (1994) interviewed seven former Division I football players without professional contracts to examine their experiences after leaving intercollegiate sports. Results suggested that individuals who had a strong athlete identity and viewed their collegiate career as the road to professionalism often disregard the importance of an education.

Research exploring how athletes view themselves, through athlete identity, is rather sparse. Kleiber and Malik 0989) examined the dynamics of the relationship between an academic orientation in college and perceived well-being after college. They found that past athletic experience still resonated as a salient source of well-being in early-adulthood, even with the abundance of other likely influencers one experienced. To prevent any possible negatives associated with athletic participation, Brustad and Ritter-Taylor (1997) suggested that colleges and universities should employ academic intervention programs to aid student-athletes in the development of their student identity. Current research has reiterated this past practical application and called for renewed attention to be paid to the lived experiences of collegiate athletes--by both scholars and practitioners (Marx et al., 2008). Therefore, the lack of specific research on athlete identity at the Division I and Division III levels, coupled with the importance of collegiate athletes developing appropriate identities related to athletics and academic pursuits, requires new research to address these concerns.

The purpose of this study was to examine the levels of athlete identity and student identity among Division I and Division III athletes. Participants were given questionnaires that measured these variables to determine whether or not Division I and Division llI athletes differ on perceived identity; and within each division, whether differences existed between freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors (Brewer et al., 1993). Previous literature discussed would suggest that Division I athletes have lower levels of student identity than do Division III athletes. These low levels are most likely due to the environment of big-time sports programs, and their enhanced focus on athletics. Additionally, past research would also indicate that athlete identity will be negatively correlated to student identity for all athletes.


Research Design and Participants

This study employed a 2 x 2 x 2 (Divisional Status x Gender x Class Level) non-experimental factorial design with two dependent measures: athlete identity and student identity. Divisional Status variables consisted of Division I and Division III institutions, as defined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and class level was simply a cross-sectional design of current freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Approval from the Institutional Review Board was obtained prior to the recruitment of participants. Participants in this study were Division I (N=66) and Division III (N=122) collegiate athletes, encompassing males (N=121) and females (N=67). All participants were on a varsity team at the time of data collection (Freshmen = 63, Sophomores = 49, Juniors = 49, Seniors = 27). One Division I and one Division III school participated in this study, both located in the Midwest. The athletic department of each school was contacted by phone or email and asked if they were willing to participate. Once agreement from a university was obtained, informed consent was acquired by including consent forms in the packets sent to the schools. These forms explained that participation was voluntary, answers would remain anonymous, and participation could be terminated at any time without penalty.


Demographic information was collected in this study, as it directly related to the researched questions asked. The demographic questionnaire included items assessing such things as sex, sport, class, GPA, years on varsity, playing time, and perceived chance of becoming a professional athlete.

Athlete identity was determined using the AIMS (Brewer et al., 1993). This questionnaire includes 10 items which are answered using a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). The test-retest reliability for this scale was acceptable ([alpha] = .89) and the internal consistency ranged from .87 to .93. Construct validity had previously been determined based on the scale's relationship to measures of athletic involvement and involvement of self in a sport role (Brewer et al., 1993)

Data concerning student identity was gathered by using the Measure of Student Identity (MSI: Shields, 1995). This questionnaire includes 15 items that are answered on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly agree, 5 = strongly disagree), with the even numbered items reverse-scored. The reliability of the test was also considered acceptable ([alpha] = .70). Finally, validity of the measure is implied by its relationship to other measures tapping into aspects of student identity (Shields, 1995).

Procedures and Data Analysis

Once IRB approval was granted and participating universities were obtained, testing envelopes were prepared by the lead experimenter. Each envelope included administrator instructions, a consent form, and a questionnaire packet (containing the demographic sheet, AIMS, and MSI) for each athlete. Half of the packets presented the AIMS before the MSI, and the other half was reverse ordered. The envelopes were sent to the athletic departments or student-athlete academic staff of the selected schools and were administered to the athletes by athletic department personnel (e.g., coach, academic coordinator) during a time of their discretion. Once informed of their rights and the benefits of participation, all athletes who voluntarily participated in this study then completed the packets and returned them to the questionnaire administrator, which were then returned to the lead investigator. Once received, data were entered into a traditional statistical software package for analysis.


Preliminary analysis of the data revealed that Levene's Test of Equality of Variances for the dependent variables of athlete identity and student identity showed no significant effects, F(15, 172) = 1.558,p > .05 and F(15, 172) = 1.535, p > .05, respectively. Because the error variances for the dependent variables used were equal across levels of the grouping variable, the data were found to be homogeneous. Means and standard deviations for all variables are presented in Table 1.

A 2 x 2 x 4 (Divisional Status x Gender x Class Level) MANOVA was used to examine the possible differences among the groups. The only significant effect found was for the independent variable Gender, F (2, 171) = 9.331, p = .001. Further analysis revealed that the effect of gender on athlete identity fell just beyond the limits of nonsignificance, F = 3.66, p = .057, while the effect of gender on student identity was significant, F = 18.12, p = .001. Specifically, males tended to have a higher athlete identity, X = 50.1, than females, X = 47.0 and females held higher perceptions of student identity, X = 56.5, when compared males, X = 51.8.

Two correlation analyses were used to determine the Pearson correlation coefficients for the relationships between athlete identity and student identity for both Division I and Division III athletes. At the Division I level, athletes' athlete identity and student identity were significantly and negatively correlated, r = -.30, p = .01. Additionally, and somewhat surprisingly, Division III athletes' athlete identity and student identity were also significantly and negatively correlated, r = -.30, p = .001. These significant negative correlations suggest that for Division I and Division III athletes, athlete identity increases slightly as student identity decreases.


The purpose of this study was to examine possible differences in athlete and student identity at Division I and Division III institutions, as well as highlight any potential disparities in these variables based on class level. Findings for this study are presented in two parts. First the significance of gender results are briefly discussed, followed by contentions as to why the identity of participants--based on competitive division--was contrary to the hypothesis asserted.

Though not the main hypothesis tested in this study, results from Division I and Division III athletes showed that identity varied by gender. Specifically, regardless of competition division level, females held a nearly-significant weaker athlete identity and a significantly stronger student identity when compared to males. Several studies over the past 25 years have confirmed this notion (e.g., Meyer, 1990; Miller & Kerr, 2002; Sack & Thiel, 1985) and have actually shown that females' commitment to the role of being a student increases as they progress through college. One explanation for this contention is that many of the sports for which male athletes once "played for love" have now become a job and could be viewed as a pipeline to professionalism (Parker, 1994). Furthermore, given that there are more professional opportunities for males than females in American society; males may hold stronger athlete identities, while females have stronger student identities. While the explanation of the disparity between males, females, and identity may not be known, our results echo the fact that overall, female athletes lead balanced lives (Sellers, Kuperminc, & Damas, 1997).

Examining the core hypothesis of this paper--that Division I athletes will have lower levels of student identity--the present data suggest that student-athletes at Division I schools have similar athlete and student identity levels as student-athletes at Division III schools. Though Coakley (2009) places significant emphasis on the differences between the missions of Division I and Division III schools--mainly that Division I schools focus more on athletics while Division III schools focus more on academics--the results point toward a more balanced perspective. Our data suggest that the environment of Division I schools does not promote athlete identity any more so than does the environment of Division III schools, and Division III schools do not promote a student identity more than Division I institutions. Thus, our findings align with the results of Richards and Aries (1999); however, it should be noted that because of the modest number of universities sampled, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn.

Additionally, the data propose that while athlete identity levels were higher for juniors--when compared to freshman--and student identity levels showedan inverse relationship to athlete identity levels, this finding was non-significant. In their study, Adler and Adler (1991) found that as male basketball players progressed through their years in college, they began losing their academic identity (also see Marx et al., 2008). The present results suggest a more constant level of identity from freshman through senior year and align with the results of Potuto and O'Hanlon (2006), in which student-athletes reported a value placed on education as seniors. One implication of this result could be that, regardless of the efforts of university staff and of the individual student-athlete, his or her student identity does not change much over the course of a college career.

The one result of this study that supports previous research findings was significant negative correlations found between athlete identity and student identity. Though not a steep relationship, as athlete identity increased student identity did decrease. These significant correlations confirmed contentions made by Murphy et al. (1996) and Brown et al. (2000). However, this study could only explain 9% of the variance between athlete and student identity, thus leaving additional constructs (e.g., decision making self-efficacy) as possible contributors to this relationship.

While much of the results of this study do not parallel previously conducted research, it is important to remember that this study suffered from a limitation similar to that experienced by Richards and Aries (1999), namely relying on only one university for each division level. Additionally, it is important to note that because of the factorial design computed the discrepancies of the number of participants--in subgroups--may have played a role in the absence of significance related to other research questions. Therefore, suggestions for subsequent research are twofold. First, research should be conducted using longitudinal analysis (extending the current cross-sectional design of this study), following a group of student-athletes from the time they enter college through the time they graduate, to more fully understand the effects of academic support for today's collegiate athletes. This suggestion is important because research has shown that as generations evolve in sport, the influence of various socializers also can change (Weiss & Barber, 1995). Thus, as previous research has suggested, athletic and student identity may fluctuate over time and the relationship between these variables may yield interesting findings. Second, future inquires should also be conducted at a variety of institutions, which are geographically diverse (e.g., Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007), so that student and athlete roles can be most accurately understood.

From this study, it is clear that continued work examining athlete and student identities are needed to advance the body of knowledge focused on the collegiate sport experience. Unlike professional athletes, collegiate athletes are, or should be, expected to take on multiple roles: specifically, those of athlete and student. Both these roles require large time commitments. Often, when individual athletes find it difficult to balance both roles, one takes precedence over the other--usually athlete over student. Therefore, it becomes important for athletes to find a balance between their roles to help them adjust to career termination. While our results and most of the literature cited here argue that the roles of athlete and student are in conflict with each other, one of the most recent and exhaustive works actually found that athletes (including high those in high profile sports) participate just as often in educational practices (i.e., overall campus involvement such as joining campus organizations or participating in service learning opportunities) as do non-athletes (Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007). Thus, sport psychologists, coaches, athletic administrators, and academic counselors need to continue to stay abreast of research on this subject matter to aid athletes in adjusting to and carrying out both the athlete and the student role effectively.


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Author's Notes

Jennifer E. Sturm is now at Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, University of South Carolina, Deborah L. Feltz, Department of Kinesiology, Michigan State University, Todd A. Gilson, Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, Northern Illinois University.

Jennifer E. Sturm, Deborah L. Feltz, and Todd A. Gilson

Michigan State University

Address Correspondence to: Deborah L. Feltz, Department of Kinesiology, 134 IM Sports Circle, Michigan State University, MI, 48824. Phone: (517) 355-4732. Fax: (517) 353-2944. E-mail:

Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations for Athlete Identity
(AIMS) and Student Identity (MSI)

Groups             Athlete Identity    Student Identity

                      M      SD            M     SD

Division 1           48.5    7.8          54.2   5.7
  Male Freshman      48.2    9.7          55.0   5.9
  Male Sophomore     51.1    7.7          53.9   4.5
  Male Junior        50.3    7.4          49.0   4.6
  Male Senior        47.3    8.7          53.5   6.3
  Female Freshman    47.7    7.8          56.5   5.8
  Female Sophomore   47.6    8.6          54.5   5.4
  Female Junior      48.2    6.7          56.7   7.4
  Female Senior      45.8    7.2          56.4   4.8
Division III         49.3    8.6          53.1   6.8
  Male Freshman      50.5    7.0          52.4   6.2
  Male Sophomore     50.5   12.4          50.4   8.3
  Male Junior        50.5    6.1          51.9   4.9
  Male Senior        49.1   13.1          49.8   8.6
  Female Freshman    47.4    8.7          57.9   5.9
  Female Sophomore   49.0    3.4          57.0   4.8
  Female Junior      43.8    7.5          57.6   4.3
  Female Seniors     46.2    6.5          54.4   8.1
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Author:Sturm, Jennifer E.; Feltz, Deborah L.; Gilson, Todd A.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 16, 2011
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