Are these men dumb jocks?

A survey of Haverford College athletes explores the stereotype

Haverford Cricket Team, circa 1900

Haverford Cricket Team, circa 1900


By Geoff Hartmann       

The “dumb jock.”  It’s one of the oldest stereotypes in the book.  They’re the kids who rule high school and end up as the big men on campus in college.  They’re weak in the classroom, don’t work very hard, and are only friendly to their own kind, often bullying anyone who is an outsider.

You wouldn’t expect to find many of these dumb jocks at Haverford College, one of the best academic schools in the country.  Because Haverford’s athletic teams compete on the Division 3 level, they aren’t allowed to offer any scholarships or financial aid to athletes based on their athletic performance.  As a result, all athletes must go through the same stringent admissions process as every other student.

Since athletes aren’t given any special treatment in the admissions process, you wouldn’t think that the same sorts of stereotypes about athletes would prevail at Haverford.

You would be wrong.

A survey was recently sent out to the Haverford athletic community to gauge their feelings about their experiences as student-athletes.  The poll, which garnered 46 responses, highlighted a few interesting trends in the athletic community, as did subsequent one-on-one interviews with athletes..

For starters, a surprisingly large number of athletes feel non-athletes at Haverford view them negatively.  Over one quarter of the athletes surveyed felt that non-athletes think of them as being “unintelligent” and “unfriendly.”  Additionally, nearly 20% of the athletes said that they thought non-athletes think of them as “slackers” and 10% said that they thought non-athletes consider them to be “lazy.”

When asked to choose which term best describes how they feel non-athletes view them, nearly one quarter of the athletes chose a negative term – either “unintelligent,” “lazy,” or “unfriendly.”

Though there are a large percentage of athletes who feel they are viewed negatively by fellow students, there are differing views about the extent to which it’s a problem.

“I wouldn’t say that people say I’m dumb, just because I’m a math major, but people definitely wouldn’t go out of their way to say I’m smart in the same way they might for a non-athlete,” said senior baseball player Brett Cohen.

“I think the majority of non-athletes, and I realize this is a pretty big generalization, but I feel like a majority of them would at most see an athlete as being average academically,” said senior basketball captain Louis Cipriano.  “While they might not think of athletes as stupid, they definitely don’t think of athletes in a positive way.”

So while “unintelligent” may be too strong of a word to describe how non-athletes view athletes at Haverford, it’s clear that there is a difference between how athletes and non-athletes are thought of academically.

What’s unclear is why this difference exists, even at a school like Haverford.  Not surprisingly, non-athletes aren’t eager to open up about this subject.  However, Cohen, who’s known on campus for being eager to speak about issues in the athletic community, has a few explanations for why athletes have they academic reputation that they do from the rest of the student body.

“I think a lot of non-athletes think athletes are dumb for two reasons,” said Cohen.   “First, they think a lot of athletes just take easier courses.  So while a non-athlete might take an extremely heavy course load because they have more time to devote to school, an athlete may try and choose one or two easier classes just because they don’t have as much time to dedicate to studying.  The second thing is that athletes usually have less academic kinds of conversations outside of class than non-athletes.  So, for example, when kids are in the Dining Center, a lot of times you hear athletes talking about sports or pop culture or social gossip, as opposed to ‘academic talk.’  And so people interpret this to mean that athletes are less academic and, therefore, less smart.”

Cohen brings up an interesting point in his extremely blunt take on this subject.  This idea that athletes take easier courses than non-athletes should be looked at more in-depth.  At Haverford, there are certain courses and certain professors that are known for being “easy.”  In general, a lot of the students who take these classes are athletes. 

However, the fact that these “easy” classes have a large number of athletes doesn’t mean as much as it might appear.  First, most of these “easy” classes are entry-level classes and, therefore, are larger classes.  Because athletes make up 37% of the student body, per the Haverford admissions’ website, the fact that there are a lot of athletes in large classes shouldn’t come as a surprise and doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Second, as Cohen points out, a lot of the differences in schedule difficulties has to do with the amount of time that athletes have to devote to school, an issue that we will look at further shortly.

Despite the way they feel non-athletes perceive them, athletes still view themselves as being just as intelligent as the broader student body.

“I don’t notice any difference between athletes and non-athletes when it comes to academics,” said Cipriano.

In fact, some athletes take it one step further – arguing that athletes are actually more intelligent than their non-athlete peers.

“In my opinion the athletes are, on average, smarter than non-athletes,” said Cohen.  “First, there are the statistics that show that athletes actually have a higher G.P.A.  Second, athletes have to be more on top of things.  Athletes have a set schedule of when they need to do stuff and they just have to work harder and more efficiently to get everything done.  And third, I just think athletes are smarter.  I think that there are some kids at this school who get in because of their legacy or because they have some really cool talent or fit some ethnic background that the school needs, but I think overall the athletes are among the smarter kids on campus.”

This final point is interesting to consider.  People normally think of athletes as being the kids who are given preferential treatment in admissions.  However, this is not the case at Haverford because of their admissions standards and their Division 3 athletic status.  While there is no data or other evidence to back up Cohen’s assertion, it’s an interesting point to consider and clearly shows that athlete don’t have an inferiority complex when it comes to their own academic performance.

The biggest difference between athletes’ self-perception and how they think non-athletes perceive them is about athletes’ work ethic.

“I think that a lot of non-athletes don’t realize how dedicated and hard-working athletes really are,” said Cipriano.

In the Haverford student-athlete experience survey, 55% of athletes said they spend over 20 hours per week on their sport while they’re in season and 40% said they spend 15-20 hours per week.  Out of season, 80% of athletes said they spend at least 10 hours per week on their sport.

In more understandable terms, that means that most athletes are spending at least three hours per day on their sport during their season and at least two hours per day out of season.

“Based on conversations I’ve had, I’d say that non-athletes would guess that athletes spend about an hour and a half per day on their sport rather than the three or four they actually spend,” said Cohen.

This lack of understanding helps explain a lot of the problems that athletes perceive between themselves and the non-athlete community.

“They don’t someone playing a sport as being a good and impressive thing, they think of it as more of a hobby,” said Cipriano.  “They don’t understand and appreciate the time commitment that athletes have to make and the dedication that athletes have.”

One junior athlete, who wished to remain nameless because of disciplinary issues, related a time when they faced an issue with a non-athlete not understanding the time commitment that playing a varsity sport requires.

“Earlier this year I was working on a group project for one of my classes,” the athlete said.  “I was working with this girl and our project was due on a Monday.  On Saturday, our team had an away game at a school about three hours from Haverford.   She wanted me to work on one part of our project during the day on Saturday so that we could meet up Saturday evening and finish up on Sunday.  I told her that I wouldn’t be able to because I was going to be away all day and she got really annoyed with me.  She kept saying, ‘You have a game three hours away? Like, you’re going to be gone all day? That’s so stupid, why would you spend that much time away from school just for one game?’  She had no understanding of how much time playing a sport can take up, especially when you factor in things like travel.”

This lack of understanding and annoyance at the time demands of varsity sports at Haverford were not unique to that student.

“I know that, for instance, my customs group supported athletics but they almost seemed angry that I had to spend so much time on basketball,” said Cipriano.  “They viewed it more like, ‘Why is it such a big commitment?’ or ‘Why are you giving this so much time?’ as opposed to ‘Wow, he’s really committed and works really hard.’”

Cohen also points out that sports can be demanding even when you’re not playing or practicing.

“I think unless you’ve either experienced firsthand or seen up close what it means to have to schedule work around travel for a game or how it feels to come home from practice and be exhausted and still have to do a bunch of work, you don’t really understand what kind of time commitment it is,” said Cohen.

Travel, the hours spent practicing and doing other workouts, and the physical exhaustion that athletes have to deal with are all demands that are difficult for non-athletes to understand.  Based on the stories of Haverford athletes and the survey results, this lack of understanding leads non-athletes to view athletes as lazier and less dedicated than they really are.

As far as the finding that athletes feel non-athletes perceive them as “unfriendly,” the problem appears to result more from the teams than individual athletes.

“I think [non-athletes] view teams as being like cults,” said Cipriano.

Haverford doesn’t have any fraternities, but many of the athletic teams are thought of as replacements for Greek life.  Sports teams throw most of the parties on campus and, in many cases, live together and take over large portions of the dorms.  For the last several years, the baseball team has lived together in the aptly named Henry Drinker House, which is viewed by the community as the campus’ frat house. 

These factors combine to make athletic teams seem “cliquey.”  For many students, this can be scary or intimidating.

“Some of the non-athlete girls in my customs group have told me they don’t want to go into the gym because they see all the athlete girls in there and they feel intimidated by them,” said Cipriano.  “They say like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go in there.  They scare me, they intimidate me, I don’t really want to be around them.’  I feel like that carries over to the social aspect.  Teams are viewed as being really inclusive groups and I think a lot of non-athletes find them to be intimidating and scary.”

Cohen believes that this feeling of athletes being unfriendly is more about the teams being intimidating than individual athletes actually being unfriendly.  He also believes that popular culture has a lot to do with how the athletes on campus are perceived.

“I feel like people don’t like the idea of the baseball team or the lacrosse team or whatever team, but individually they find the people on those teams to be nice,” said Cohen.  “I think a lot of it’s based on how athletes are thought of in popular culture.  I think when people are friends with athletes or are exposed to individual athletes they realize that they’re nice, friendly people.”

This social tension between athletes and non-athletes seems to stem in large part from the culture at Haverford.  As a school built on Quaker traditions and beliefs and without Greek life, the social structure of sports teams are often in conflict with the non-athletic community.

While “dumb jocks” is not an accurate way to describe Haverford athletes, there is clearly a difference between athletes and non-athletes at the school.  In order to promote better community relations, the two must groups must first understand each other better and then come to terms with their differences.

Geoff Hartmann is a member of Haverford College’s men’s basketball team