Legitimizing the Culture of Big-Time Sport: Rhetoric and the Myth of the Student-Athlete

Argument of Dissertation

Legitimizing the Culture of Big-Time Sport: Rhetoric and the Myth of the Student Athlete, analyzes and evaluates organizational rhetoric in the context “big-time” sport: universities with high-profile, revenue generating [men’s] athletics. I analyze the macro organizational rhetoric of the NCAA; rhetoric at the institutional level (in my project, the University of Maryland); and rhetoric of resistance from the National College Players’ Association. I engage organizational discourse ranging from handbooks, strategic plans, and mission statements to promotional materials, press releases and public addresses. My texts were acquired from archival sources (Hornbake Special Collections) and online. I also articulate my analysis with the broader cultural and ideological formations at play, such as corporatized higher education. My purpose is to explore discourse that legitimizes the culture of big-time sport. I argue that the myth of the student-athlete is the primary rhetorical commonplace that legitimizes big-time sport culture – both the good and the bad.

Value of Research Specialization

This project holds both disciplinary and social significance. Whereas important research has been conducted on sports from mass media or public relations perspectives (i.e., crisis communication during scandal) and collegiate athlete activism, this dissertation expands the scholarly view to consider the networked and interdependent rhetorical culture of sport and higher education as illuminated through competing organizational discourse. Further, this project is interdisciplinary; it aims to join scholarship in critical/cultural studies disciplines with scholarship in communication. As a result, this project contributes to both the academic and public debates surrounding big-time sport and intervenes with practical recommendations for members at all levels of big-time sport. The issues my dissertation explores are urgent in nature given big-time sport’s faults, especially as they implicate the health and well-being of student-athletes and of higher education.

Contributions of Dissertation

Aside from shedding light on current issues in big-time sport from a rhetorical perspective This dissertation makes the following contributions to rhetoric and communication scholarship:

  • Explains the ideological and axiological topoi of the myth of the student-athlete;
  • Provides an extended critical framework to understand and analyze discourse of and about big-time college sport;
  • Bridges disciplinary and interdisciplinary divides in scholarship to contribute practical interventions for the problems in big-time sport.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter one focuses on detailing the problem the dissertation seeks to address. In addition to setting the context of big-time sport in the 21st century, this chapter summarizes the major arguments for and against the inclusion of sports in higher education. This is the rhetorical landscape that situates my study. This chapter concludes with posing the major research question and previewing the critical lens and argument.

Chapter two explores the macro organizational culture: The National Collegiate Athletics Association. This chapter argues that the NCAA has constructed and maintains the myth of the student-athlete through several texts: its constitution and bylaws, strategic plan, division handbooks, and public statements/addresses by the president (currently Mark Emmert). The myth of the student-athlete relies on three axiological topoi: purity, excellence, and well-being.

Chapter three explores one institution that represents big-time sport: Maryland. After reviewing the historical relationship between athletics and education, this chapter details Maryland’s particular institutional context and culture through archival materials, traditions, and rituals. Then, this chapter analyzes two key documents — Maryland Athletics’ Strategic Plan and the Student-Athlete Handbook – and argues that Maryland reinforces the myth of the student-athlete primarily by constructing athletics as a source of aretē, or excellence.

Chapter four explores how former or current college athletes are reinforcing or contesting the myth of the student-athlete. This chapter examines two related advocacy organizations – The National College Players Association and the College Athlete Players Association – and analyzes how athletes resist the status quo and advocate for organizational and cultural change. The chapter’s analysis concludes that these organizations resist the myth of the student-athlete primarily by refutation.

Chapter five concludes the dissertation by summarizing the findings of the study and the implications of the myth of the student-athlete. This chapter also concludes with some practical recommendations for organizational members in big-time sport to productively deliberate over and attempt to solve the various issues in big-time sport.

Relevance to Future Research

My dissertation project is the foundation for my first book project. I will expand my analysis of the NCAA’s organizational rhetoric by engaging in historical/archival research to examine texts such as NCAA conference proceedings and historical “house organs” like newsletters.  I plan to explore other case studies beyond Maryland, such as institutions belonging to other “Power-5” Conferences. I will pursue financial assistance to complete archival and field research for these case studies.  Further, I plan to collaborate with other scholars in mixed-methods research to explore experiential texts, rituals, and traditions (rhetorical ethnography) at big-time universities to engage critical theory in a new materialist/spatial analysis of sports stadia and facilities. This research all contributes to my goal of interpreting the rhetorical culture of big-time sport.