Background/Context: School-sponsored sports programs are seen in both the public and policy spheres as meritocratic mobility institutions. In the U.S. context, athletic participation can yield access to college via sports performance. Meritocratic mobility would be achieved as individuals use their athletic ability and effort to enter universities and in turn improve their social standing. Yet few existing studies empirically examine the extent to which interscholastic athletic participation yields mobility. As a result, little is known about how individuals access colleges via athletics.
Purpose/Objective: This study’s purpose was to understand how individuals began a path to college via sports. In doing so, it asks: what larger social forces influence how youth become top-level college athletes? It draws upon social reproduction theory—how publicly funded educational entities ensure the maintenance rather than the reduction of class inequality—to determine whether youth sports participation facilitates mobility.
Research Design: This qualitative study examined the athletic and academic trajectories of 47 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I student-athletes from one university classified as Research-1, Tier-1, and as a member of a power-five athletic conference. Data include semistructured life history interviews, an original database, and institutional reports.
Population: Participants were recruited from four teams to investigate the athletic selection process: men’s and women’s track & field and rowing. The teams offered multiple comparisons in macro- and micro-social processes. Rowing draws from White and elite communities, because it requires tremendous resources to participate. Conversely, track & field requires fewer resources and draws more participants from marginalized communities.
Findings: Research reveals a sports-track-to-college pipeline and a correspondence between White middle-class communities and greater access to elite universities via athletics. Access to the sports-track-to-college pipeline is co-constructed through interactions at the individual, familial, and institutional levels. Five reproductive mechanisms are discussed—community access, bureaucracies, social access, knowledge, and enacted knowledge—all of which emerged as greater determiners for college athletic recruiting than individual athletic merit.
Conclusions: Recommendations offer policy and programmatic changes at the high school, college, and NCAA levels that make athletic recruiting more transparent and systematic to lessen the reproductive effects.