The Effects of Participation in Collegiate Athletics on Network Dynamics and Accumulation of Cultural Capital

Shawn Kern, Ethan Fridmanski


Broadly speaking, sports scholars in the social sciences maintain a position that American college athletics programs make profits on the exploitation of student-athletes to the tune of several billion dollars a year. However, an unpopular belief within the sociological study of college athletics contends that in exchange for their athletic labor student-athletes receive numerous benefits that undermine the accusation of exploitation. For instance, college athletes receive: •Scholarships and housing (economic capital) •degrees (cultural capital) •and a position of high status on their campuses (symbolic capital). Yet, what is often left out of the discussion is social capital. Interestingly, social capital--a concept that has been linked to post-college employment, earnings, marital success, and overall life satisfaction--has not been previously studied in the context of college athletic participation. More specifically, what has yet to be explored is how participation in college athletics plays a role in determining one’s network characteristics and access to capital. The study asks i) what role do networks play in the accumulation and concentration of social capital and ii) how does this accumulation and concentration of cultural capital look at the elite collegiate level, where clubs, teams, and other affinity groups are commonplace centers for interaction and exchange? The leading hypothesis was that student-athletes will have higher network degrees and less clustering in their networks than non-athletes. Ultimately, this is to say that we believed student-athletes are situated to accumulate more social capital than non-athletes. Using network analysis, this paper utilizes data from the NetHealth study, which is comprised of data from students’ Fitbit devices, smartphones, and surveys to ascertain network and ego traits over several years. All participants in the study were attendees at the University of Notre Dame—a school generally regarded as an institution for the academically and economically elite. OLS regression was used to examine the effects of athletic participation on network degree and clustering, and included numerous control variables at both the ego and alter levels. What our study finds is that student-athletes’ have significantly higher degrees in their networks than their non-athlete peers. Additionally, we find student-athlete networks are less clustered than non-athletes. What’s more, we find that there is no difference in significance between club and varsity athletes. What this means is that athletes have larger networks, are privy to more information within their networks, and have more open networks with seemingly weaker ties. This research is ongoing and is the first step in understanding the effects of athletic participation on network characteristics and the accumulation of capital. We anticipate that with further study we will see high network degrees for athletes leading to higher grade point averages and higher scores for self-esteem and self-efficacy--addressing a body of literature that articulates the mechanisms for conversion of social capital into other forms of capital.

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