Welcome to Earning Our Stripes!
This podcast is all about the lived experiences of student athletes at Princeton university, hosted by me, Luisa Chantler Edmond. I am an Anthropology Major and current Princeton Track and Field athlete competing in the Hammer and the Discus. Being a student athlete has been the most gratifying experience of my time at Princeton, however it has not been without its challenges. Studying Anthropology at Princeton has allowed me to think critically about the tensions created when a person agrees to comply with the NCAA, and assume the role of an amateur student athlete. In thinking about what I wanted my thesis to represent about my time at the university were these afore mentioned tensions, and what they mean for student athletes as they attempt to excel academically and athletically. This lead me to the following ethnographic question;
What are the lived experiences of Varsity Student- Athletes at Princeton as they relate to amateurism, sporting relationships, and compliance with NCAA, Ivy League, and Princeton University rules and regulations?
This question asks a lot about how student athletes orientate their lives at the university, and it was the realisation that I was repeatedly engaging in conversations with fellow student athletes about their specific experiences with collegiate athletics that made me realise that a podcast was the perfect format within which to conduct my ethnographic work. Prior to taking on this work I was finding that the nature of being a student athlete meant that as a group across different sports we often share experiences as people beholden to the NCAA. Fellow student athletes are also perfectly situated to understand the difficulties and pressure college athletics placed on one another.
What was, and remains, most important to me is that student athletes are understood in the context of the work we put in both within and without the classroom. By virtue of the demanded amateur status of NCAA athletes, the transactions between University, NCAA, and athlete, is non-monetary, and instead rooted in the idea that athletes play ‘for the love of the sport’ rather than the compensation for their time and effort. While in many cases the love of the sport is a primary reason for competing in collegiate athletics, distilling this idea as the reality for all would be inefficient and inaccurate. Therefore, I initiated this podcast as a way to have open and frank conversations with Princeton student athletes on the nature of their lived experiences at the university.
Of particular importance to me was to ask questions of current student athletes about how they perceive their identity as student athletes is or is not influenced by the constraints of amateurism, compliance with the NCAA, and the relationship that college athletics constructs between themselves and their sport. Over the course of this my senior year, I sat down with ten Princeton athletes to have conversations about their athletic and academic lives. My hope for the podcast was, and is, to amplify the voices of student athletes in our university community, and to provide a platform that analyses the commitment to excellence we make everyday. The experience has been absolutely fantastic, and I cannot wait for people to listen to what my interviewees had to say when I spoke to them!
Take a listen and GO TIGERS!
The anthropology of control and power is central to my thesis work. In particular, the ways in which performed work constructs systems of coercion and dependency within the powerful structures that facilitate the performance of labour/work. As I have discussed already student athletes in the American college system are beholden to the rules of their individual institution, athletic conference, and ultimately the NCAA. My work focuses solely on the athlete/academic experience of Princeton student athletes; how the work demanded by an Ivy League institution is balanced with athletic commitments, whether student athletes perceive themselves as amateurs, and the changing relationships with their sports. Broadly these areas of interest fall into the categories of compliance, amateurism, and the power structures that facilitate them. With this in mind I will us this section to delve into what various scholars have written about the power and its situation in relation to work.
In his chapter “Docile Bodies” from Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison Foucault writes that “The classical age discovered the body as object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body – to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skilful and increases its forces” (Foucault 1995, 135). While Foucault’s observations were made in response to thinking about conditioning humans within systems of incarceration, for my purposes these words aide me in delving into the intersections between sport at an collegiate amateur level and the organizations of power that exert control over these athletes. As an instrument of athleticism the body is an athlete’s primary mode of expression, but also of utility. An amateur competitor within American college sports your commitment to your individual athletic discipline is not demanded by the act of monetary exchange; you are an amateur in that you compete for the sake of the sport rather than for compensation. However, the utility of an athlete is measured in performance, the greater the performance the more likely it is to garner recognition and economic reward for the institution for which you compete. The amount of money a particular athlete can generate for their institution is not fixed, it depends on the sport, and athlete, in question (Zimbalist 2018, 338-39). The fact that there is opportunity for revenue to be created via an athlete, but not for them is the weird reality of the NCAA. Clearly, the dichotomy of amateurism within this system is that the student athletes must comply with NCAA demands or forgo their eligibility. The rules of amateurism, and an amateur athletes compliance with them, result in athletes who are disciplined in their pursuit of upholding and maintaining adherence with the rules that keep them viable within the NCAA. Amateur college athletes are committed to honing their athletic craft to the betterment of their institutional/athletic department, whilst strictly obeying rules that eliminate the capacity of to be non-compliant without punishment. Whether the infringement is valid or not.
Foucault suggests that docile bodies are moulded by discipline, (Foucault 1995, 138) an assertion that centres discipline as the foundation upon which ‘forces’ are built and channelled through bodies in order to carry out the intended function. He goes on to discuss “Panopticism” (Foucault, 2008) in the context of observation and non-observation in specially engineered prisons;
“Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (Foucault 2008, Page 6).
Foucault’s words suggest that the removal or subversion of a system in which people are aware of when they are watched and when they are not, in favour of a system that demands people within are constantly alert to the behavioural demands made of them, allows for those in power to utilise control over this behaviour, and the conditioning of future behaviours. This idea ensures power, and not utility, is stripped from those trapped within the panopticon. The concept of panopticism, and the panopticon, are fascinating in thinking about the organisation of work in relation to power. Isolating the people within the panopticon from having direct contact with those in power means that limited realisation of the capacity to change the system is possible. Despite a lack of power over the dictation of their lives, the people of the panopticon retain their individual capacity to complete work, and will continue to do so as they perceive themselves as being watched. It is in this way that Bentham’s idea allows Foucault to think about the value in preventing the locus of power from being truly visible. According to Foucault “It’s aim is to strengthen the social forces, to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply” (Foucault 2008, 11). Perhaps, we can think about the surveillance that the panopticon constructs as facilitating the silent power of observation and its influence on behaviour. In contrast, the performance of spectacle spotlights power, making those on display appear to be in control, and/or seemingly transforming them into beings who ‘rightly’ have a greater capacity for influence. Both observation and spectacle are essential in a student athletes life, we are observed by those who help to condition us in practice, and then engage in the spectacle that our sport becomes in a performance context. We are therefore open to the stipulations and demands of someone else’s control through both observation and spectacle, however in different ways.
The concept of the panopticism is one that has been applied to the realm of collegiate sport by Anthropologist Kevin Michael Foster, in his work; Panopticonics: The Control and Surveillance of Black Female Athletes in a Collegiate Athletics Program (Foster 2003). Foster discusses the experiences of specifically Black female athletes within a university institution that remains hidden behind a pseudonym. Foster identifies the athletic department and the buildings within which the athletes are told, and taught, to rely on as a panopticon (Foster 2003, 305). He reports that the system in place within this institution demands that athletes spend much of their time within athletic buildings even outside of practice hours in order that they be surveyed in the completion of both athletic and academic requirements (Foster 2003, 305). The reality of discipline and control are evident here through the use of punishment or simply threats of it; “…in those instances where compliance to the athletic department structure was resisted, complaints and undesired behaviours were mediated by threats. Noncompliant athletes were routinely told that some or all of their scholarship money could be taken away from them at any time if they misbehaved” (Foster 2003, 309). This paper is massively important to me, and while I wouldn’t go as far to suggest that the Princeton athletic department operates as a panopticon, it makes me question how our relationship with academic and athletic work is situated. I wonder then how the ability of the panopticon to establish an ‘increase utility at all costs, and enforce behaviour at all times’ methodology can be viewed in the context of Princeton student athletes? Whilst at practice student athletes must be disciplined, focused on the task at hand or else face reprimands, a stipulation that is then translated into repeatability in a performance context. We learn that from the time we spend conforming to the behaviour asked of us in practice, we enable a set-up for performance within the athletic event context. I would therefore assert that student athletes are trading in time when committing to academic and athletic betterment, with time being the component of the practice/schoolwork exchange that facilitates the relationship between student and institution?
Foster’s concluding argument suggests that the panopticonics applied disparately, and in a targeted manner, to Black female athletes at this university lead to their stark success in relation to many other demographic groups that make up the athletic department (Foster 2003). It is interesting to contend with the reality of control that occupying the role and status of student athlete can mean for people who compete in college. Yes, Foster suggests that for these young Black women there were benefits to existing within a panopticon while at university, however, as someone who observed rather than experienced it is difficult for me to wholly sympathise with his conclusion. In my view the racialised approach taken by this University is evidence of a lack of trust in black women to be able to complete their studies without surveillance and extra care simply because they are black. This paper is essential to my discussion, and to the context of my podcast, as it is evidence of conflicting ideas held about the lived experiences of student athletes, with those who cannot claim the status making claims that do not always tally with real experiences.
Gabby Yearwood’s Playing Without Power: Black Male NCAA Student-Athletes Living with Structural Racism (2018) delves into state of dependency built between academic institutions and the NCAA through the transfer of financial means. Yearwood’s ethnography is essential for looking at the lived experiences of Black men who are taught that their inherent value lies in their athletic ability; sporting performance traded for financial support. Yearwood is specifically concerned with black males whose socio-economic backgrounds mean that being good at sport is the crucial pillar in accessing education. The work is indicative of the varied landscape that exists within the NCAA, one in which financial security is not a guarantee despite the scholarship incentive. “It effectively creates extreme forms of dependency, where students coming from low-socio-economic backgrounds and financial constraints must rely on the university and athletic departments for all their needs” (Yearwood 2018, page 26). Yearwood’s work makes me question the bounds of amateurism, can it truly be said that the young men described by Yearwood as dependent on their institution are playing their sport simply for the love of the game? My work of course, is specifically situated within Princeton. It is therefore important to highlight that Ivy League institutions do not offer athletic scholarships, and instead each student is means tested in order to make access to education fair. I write this to contrast Yearwood’s ethnographic site with my own. However, I would like to point out that while the institutional practices regarding financial support are different, the nature of the NCAA as an umbrella organisation means that student athletes across institutions are all beholden to the same rules. Expectations may differ but the bounds of amateurism, and our compliance with it, remain consistent.
An athlete is first and foremost a performer, playing their sport in front of a crowd excited to see athleticism on display. However, the definition of the word in relation to sport differs depending on whether it is athlete or audience member who constructs the definition. Whether a professional sporting event or collegiate, the audience expects to be entertained by the sport on offer. For the athlete that same event represents an opportunity to perform relative to their many hours of practice. Together, the audience and athlete make the spectacle what it is. The athlete understands the expectations demanded of them by the audience and therefore pours their being into the spectacle in order that the audience, the consumers, can decide whether their effort is worth the recognition or not. Using collegiate athletics and Princeton as a lens, student athletes understand that they must be in a position in which they are able to balance high level academia, with high level sporting commitments. It is the spectacle itself that inhibits the audience’s grasp on the external commitments made by the athletes to be able to entertain them, a reality I hope to broach with my interviewees.
In considering this understanding of sporting events as spectacle, it has been useful for me to contend with Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and in particular his chapter “The Commodity as Spectacle” (Debord 1994) Debord writes that in a society dominated by spectacle “the real consumer thus becomes a consumer of illusion. The commodity is this illusion, which is in fact real, and the spectacle is its most general form.” (Debord 1994, 32) The situation of commodity as an illusion with which the consumer interacts is suggestive of the importance of perception to this system. For collegiate sport this means that audiences are interacting with student athletes through preconceived notions of what their job is and how they come to complete their decided ‘function.’ Of course, there can and should be debate over what exactly the commodity is in the relationship between college athletes and the work they perform. I propose that there is an argument to be made about the commodity in question being the time that student athletes pour into allowing for the spectacle.
An added dimension of interest in considering the situation of college athletes as a part of a system of controlled work, are the critiques made of the NCAA in attempt to improve the system. For example, in Andrew Zimbalist’s Wither the NCAA: Reforming the system (2018) Zimbalist discusses the need for reform in the NCAA and the possible ways in which he could envision it happening in order to allow for greater student athlete autonomy in completing their role as student and athlete. (Zimbalist 2018) Part of Zimbalist’s argument for reform lies in actions that have already been taken against the NCAA in order to advocate for athletes to receive fair compensation, as well as for pure recognition of their contributions to their institution. One such example is, “…embodied in Jeffrey Kessler’s antitrust suit, which was filed in the Third Circuit, on behalf of Martin Jenkins against the NCAA. It claims that the NCAA functions as a cartel that artificially and injuriously colludes to preclude the development of a labour market for college athletes and to prevent them from receiving fair compensation given their revenue contribution to the schools” (Zimbalist 2018, 338).
The specific autonomy sought here is to for an athletes time to be compensated monetarily. The article goes on to describe that there is a system in place that means that universities are compensated for the performance of better players, in more popular sports, and more competitive conferences, meaning not every athlete is making their institution money. However some are, and lots of it (Zimbalist 2018, 338-339). Looking at the Ivy league specifically, student athletes are not on scholarships. Rather, they have access to the same financial aid that every student has access to, as long as financial aid is employed in their institution to support students. I am very intrigued to discuss this dimension of being student athletes at Princeton with my interviewees, as it is a very specific situation for collegiate athletics.
There is limited scholarship out there on the situation of student athlete’s as workers. Perhaps a part of the reason is that, as Nathan Kalman-Lamb put it, “We characterize sports as play, and we view those who play sports for a living as privileged and fortunate” (De La Cretaz 2021). Of course, there is privilege in playing sport at either the college or professional level, however it would be completely ignorant to think that athletes you see competing on the television or in the arena were offered a golden ticket to get where they are. Personally, I think the situation of student athletes as workers in opposition to ideas of athletic privilege. I hope that my thesis research helps to provide the prospective of a subset of Princeton student athletes, who work extremely hard to stay afloat in their classes and in their athletics. It is no mean feat, and I am proud to call each and every one of the people I talked with over the course of senior year, a friend.
Debord, Guy. 1994. “The Commodity as Spectacle.” In The Society of the Spectacle, 25–34. translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Zone Books, 1994. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1453m69.5
De La Cretaz, Britni. 2021. “Athletes are the Future of the Labor Movement” Mic.com website, June 10th. Accessed 24th of May 2022. https://www.mic.com/impact/athletes-are-the-future-of-the-labor-movement
Foucault, Michel, 1995. “Docile Bodies” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books, pages 135-170
Foucault, Michel. 2008. “Panopticism” in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 2, no. 1,1–12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25594995. First Published in 1995.
Foster, Kevin Michael. 2003. “Panopticonics: The Control and Surveillance of Black Female Athletes in a Collegiate Athletic Program.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34, no. 3 :300–323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3196002.
“Student-Athlete Handbook 2021-2022” goprincetontigers.com. 2021. Accessed Thursday 13th of January 2021 https://goprincetontigers.com/sports/2021/9/9/student-athlete-handbook-2021-22.aspx
Summary of NCAA Regulations – NCAA Division I. 2011. Accessed 13th of January 2021. http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/AMA/compliance_forms/DI/DI%20Summary%20of%20NCAA%20Regulations.pdf
Yearwood, Gabby. 2018. “Playing without Power: Black Male NCAA Student-Athletes Living with Structural Racism.” Transform Anthropol, 26: 18-35. https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1111/traa.12119
Zimbalist, Andrew. 2018. “Whither the NCAA: Reforming the System.” Rev Ind Organ 52, 337–350 https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1007/s11151-017-9598-4