LAWRENCE — It has long been assumed that a university’s athletic teams help bring students together, form new bonds and make them feel a part of the community. A new study by a University of Kansas professor shows, however, that students’ team identity can actually detract from the quality of their social networks.
Aaron Clopton, associate professor of health, sport and exercise science at KU, has published “Social Capital and College Sport: In Search of the Bridging Potential of Intercollegiate Athletics” in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport. In the article he examines how college students’ team identity affects their social capital, or feelings of trust, identity, cohesion and sense of community among societal connections.
“The impact athletics are having are maybe not be in line with what we’ve imagined,” Clopton said. “The ramifications can be very interesting.”
For the article, Clopton surveyed more than 1,250 traditional age undergraduate students at Division I, Bowl Championship Series universities via email. The students were asked questions about the athletics programs at their school and to rate how strongly they felt about questions such as “how important to you is it that the (school’s teams) win?” and “during the season how closely do you follow the (school’s teams?)” and others about their university identity, such as “most students/faculty at this university are basically honest and can be trusted” and “I feel accepted as a member of this university.” They were also asked how strongly they agree with social capital questions about the trustworthiness of friends and dependability of their social contacts.
Clopton examined two areas of social capital: bonding, the idea that communities can be brought together by things such as athletics; and bridging, or how certain factors can help individuals make new contacts and adjust to new environments. Bridging is especially important, Clopton said, because it has long been assumed that athletics can help students adjust to their new surroundings on a campus community. He found, however, that the more strongly students identified with their school’s team, the lower their social capital. University identity showed a stronger connection with positive social capital.
“University identity is really where the positive connection is right now,” Clopton said. “It does seem to throw some support to the idea, and I don’t necessarily agree with it, that athletics and academics don’t really align in their missions.”
The findings were surprising, Clopton said. He hypothesized team identity would provide a positive impact on social capital of students beyond university identity and that team identity would positively impact the ability of college students to adjust to a campus community. The findings, however, did not bear that out.
“We’ve always said ‘athletics are pure. They represent our community, our culture. It’s one thing that has and always will unite people who pass through these doors,’” Clopton said.
Communities with low overall social capital have demonstrated a host of negative consequences such as declining public health, higher crime rates and higher costs for personal security. The possibility that team identity could decrease social capital among students is one university administrators should take into account, he said. The findings contradict not only assumptions, but also previous literature stating students’ team identity has positively contributed to social benefits. Clopton’s study, however, is the first to control for use of a student’s university identity as well as team identity.
Athletics should not be completely dismissed as a way to bring students and communities together, he said, they may simply be more likely to unite select groups as opposed to student bodies in general.
“While identifying with athletics is a real and tangible connection to one aspect of the university, it could be that perhaps its impact may be more in line with the impact of other student programs on campus such as greek organizations, where bonding social capital and sense of community run high,” Clopton wrote.
The findings open the possibility for further research into the connection between sports and social capital, Clopton said, and should not be generalized to indicate that athletics and academics cannot contribute to each others’ successes. The idea that identifying with the school’s team, such a socially revered concept, could negatively impact the quality of students’ social connections is one worth exploring further.
“I’m wondering if we’re getting to the point where the idea of athletics is polarizing,” Clopton said. “Kind of like politics, you can’t bring up in certain situations.”