UW junior John Timu took a noticeably deep breath as he and classmate Hau’oli Jamora prepared to present at the 2013 UW Undergraduate Research Symposium. As Husky football players, they’re celebrated for accomplishments on the gridiron, but the classroom is a different playing field. Outfitted in letterman jackets, they took position behind the podium, ready to tackle a formidable opponent—the stereotype that athletes aren’t academically successful.“It’s shocking how (football) players are discredited and not given the respect they deserve for their intelligence,” says Jamora. “We want to analyze where this message comes from and how do we change the perception?”
Jamora and Timu applied and were chosen to present their research, “Decolonizing Education: Translating Football Intelligence Into the Classroom,” in a 10-minute, multimedia lecture at the 16th annual symposium. The event provides a public forum for undergraduates to share scholarly research and is open to students representing all disciplines. Jamora and Timu joined more than 1,000 undergraduates presenting their research this year.
The student-athletes’ topic originated from their anthropology studies. Both are minoring in the field and wanted to explore their personal observations and experiences in an academic context. How do societal perceptions of football intelligence compare to “elite” extracurriculars such as chess, golf, and tennis? Their work began in January, 2013, and employed methodologies learned in class. They organized peer focus groups, conducted interviews, surveyed photos and evaluated patterns in public discourse and sports broadcasting. They also analyzed formats that particularly appeal to younger audiences such as social media sites and popular video games like Madden NFL.
“Like most college students, we like to play video games, so we did plenty of research!” laughs Jamora.
The findings also factored in how football players themselves sometimes contribute to the problem. Jamora and Timu examined Facebook and Twitter comments from prominent NFL players. The posts often relied on slang and poor grammar, which perpetuates an impression of ignorance.
“If you look at media, video games, and even NFL commentators, what they say and the phrases they use focus on the player’s physical ability rather than their intelligence,” says Timu. “It’s disturbing how often athletes are compared to animals or described as savage or machinelike.”
To counter prevailing attitudes, their symposium presentation evidenced how football is a game of the mind as much as the body. Using video footage, they illustrated the complexities of executing just one play. Like chess, football players assess options, strategize and map out possibilities.
“On the football field, you have seconds to make decisions and everything counts. You can’t overlook details. We take those skills into the classroom and it helps us perform better academically,” says Timu.
The duo serve as personal examples. Both are the first in their families to attend college. Jamora maintains a 3.5 GPA and sometimes wakes as early as 5:30 a.m. and goes to bed at midnight to accommodate practices, games, and homework. Timu maintains a similar schedule. In April, he became the first UW student-athlete to win the prestigious Brett E. Baldwin Memorial Scholarship for Anthropology.
“John and Hau’oli, plus some of their teammates, are really changing the culture of the (football) team,” says Dr. Holly Barker, an anthropology department lecturer who mentors both students and nominated Timu for the Baldwin award. “They’ve helped create an expectation that football players should do well in class and be visible, academic leaders.”
Barker works extensively with student-athletes and teaches an “Anthropology in Sport” seminar. She has witnessed a twofold, positive effect from the players’ research. Non-athletes offer testimonials that they now realize how smart football players can be. The resulting, more integrated atmosphere has encouraged players—including Jamora and Timu—to sit at the front of class, raise their hands, and feel welcome to participate on an equal playing field.
“These negative stereotypes can really affect players. It surprised me to find out how much graduation rates and other numbers involved with academic achievement are impacted,” says Jamora. “It often goes under the radar, but it impacts society when you limit people in this way.”
For Jamora and Timu, their opportunities appear limitless. Both aspire to play in the NFL, but graduate school is also an option. Timu plans to finish his undergraduate work early so he can commence graduate studies before completing his UW football career.
“The UW is a research institution, but so much of that tends to happen at the graduate level. The symposium is important because we need to give undergrads an understanding of what research entails and demystify it if we want to get our best, brightest and most diverse students to consider grad school,” says Barker.
At the conclusion of their symposium presentation, Jamora put on his glasses with a sly smile and they both removed their letterman jackets to reveal professional attire.
“Do we have to take off our (athletic) jackets to be taken seriously?” Jamora asked the audience.
The symposium was a welcome opportunity to present their research and demonstrate that football players are forces to contend with both on and off the field.