Date of Paper/Work


Degree Name

Doctor of Education in Leadership (Ed.D.)

Type of Paper/Work



Jayne Sommers, Thomas Fish, Sarah Noonan



This study used a qualitative, phenomenological approach to examine how NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball players’ cognitive development is affected by their college student experience. Student athletes’ voices were highlighted to measure a primary outcome of their higher education experience. In-person, in-depth interviews were conducted with 17 NCAA Division I football and basketball players during or within one year of their final year of eligibility.

Athletics emerged as a priority over academics and shaped participants’ entire college experience. Participants identified instructors and athletic staff as the most influential faculty member during their college experience. Various methods of effective learning contributed to participants’ cognitive development. Participants also discussed various approaches to analyzing information and synthesizing knowledge that reflected their cognitive development. Finally, tutoring and academic advising emerged as two student services that impacted participants’ cognitive development most.

Theoretical analysis using Perry’s (1968, 1981) forms of ethical and intellectual development and Baxter Magolda’s (1992) epistemological reflection model demonstrated that NCAA Division I football and basketball players use the same positions or stages of meaning- making that most traditional-age college students use. Participants used different positions or stages of meaning-making within a theory depending on the context or timing of the experience, which calls into question the effectiveness of stage-based development theories that place students into predefined development and students proceed through in a designated order.

Multiple implications for athletic departments and student-athlete development professionals to safeguard student athletes’ cognitive development are discussed. Implications include where and with whom student athletes live, what impacts student athletes’ college choice, what impacts student athletes’ major choice, and how student athletes balance athletic time commitments with academic responsibilities and development opportunities. The study furthers debate about whether the missions of higher education and intercollegiate athletics are congruent.


student athlete, NCAA, student athlete development, cognitive development, college athletics

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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