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Leveling the Academic Playing Field

Ricky Williams

Meet Two Celebrated Student Athletes Who are Reaching Their Academic Goals

We have all heard the stereotypes about student-athletes: they are “dumb jocks”; they aren’t interested in academics; they don’t care about earning a degree. In the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, however, the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE) helps break down these stereotypes by supporting student athletes to succeed academically and to consider earning a higher degree.

Dr. Darren Kelly is director of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. The program is one of the federally funded TRiO programs at UT Austin that supports traditionally underserved students at the university. Kelly and his team have taken the McNair Scholars a step further by encouraging student athletes to participate.

“Some student athletes have never been given the opportunity to conduct research or work one-on-one with faculty members,” Kelly says. “We see real potential in our athletes. Contrary to the stereotypes, they are smart. They have to be on the field or court. They also spend most of their time preparing to play—they are under an enormous amount of pressure to succeed in their sport, often at the expense of their academic pursuits.”

Kelly says the combination of support and encouragement they receive through the McNair Scholars Program and others within the LCAE, such as the African American Male Research Initiative, give them the confidence to succeed academically.

The McNair Scholars requires a two-year commitment and includes workshops, seminars, an introduction to graduate school culture and undergraduate research opportunities. Students have the opportunity to present their research and attend academic conferences and visit potential graduate schools beyond UT Austin. A faculty mentor works with each McNair Scholar and members of Kelly’s team, including Dr. James Brown, Dr. Tommy Darwin, Dr. Louis Harrison, Dr. Rodolfo Jimenez and Dr. Charles Lu, serve as advisors.

Former UT football great Ricky Williams and walk-on basketball player Tarale Murry are two of the McNair student athlete success stories.

Lessons Learned: McNair Scholar Ricky Williams knows the importance of academic success

Ricky Williams speaking at the 2015 Black Student Athlete Summit.
Ricky Williams speaking at the 2015 Black Student Athlete Summit.

At nearly age 38, Ricky Williams is not your average undergraduate. He never was. The San Diego native, who grew up in a single-parent household, was a Longhorn running back from 1995-98 and holds or shares 20 NCAA records. He was the second Longhorn to win a Heisman Trophy.

Following an NFL career, Williams has returned to the Forty Acres to complete a degree in physical education, culture and sports. Now a senior, he also is a McNair Scholar whose research focuses on racial differences in achievement motivation among elite college athletes. Williams became interested in examining the motivation of athletes while in Dr. Leonard Moore’s course, Race in the Age of Obama, which included a number of freshman football players.

“I was struck by how competent they were on the field, but [they] did not have that spirit in the classroom. They reminded me of myself,” he says.

Williams was a junior when he traded academic pursuits for the NFL.

“I came to college not planning on the NFL, just for the collegiate football experience,” he explains. “But choosing the NFL was easier than deciding on a career.”

Although a successful professional athlete, Williams laments that he wished someone along the way had encouraged him to do better academically during his initial college experience, to take education seriously.

“It is definitely important to get student athletes to succeed academically,” Williams says, noting that paying adequate attention to both academics and athletics can be difficult when student athletes spend 20-30 hours a week at practice. “Not a lot of people talk about it, but sometimes academic success conflicts with creating a quality product on the field.”

With Dr. Leonard Moore, senior associate vice-president for academic diversity initiatives and professor of history, and Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, as mentors, Williams has begun a quantitative research study based on attribution theory, looking at perceived causes of academic success and failure.

Being a McNair Scholar has motivated Williams to pursue a doctorate in psychology. “I didn’t even consider I could ever do that,” Williams says. “‘Dr. Williams’—I like the way that sounds. It excites me. I didn’t ever consider I could get a Ph.D., but I know it’s going to open even more doors in my life,” he said.

Tarale Murry: The thoughtful athlete

Tarale Murry at the From Player to Platform event. Photo by Andrew Masi
Tarale Murry at the From Player to Platform event.
Photo by Andrew Masi

Like many student athletes, Tarale Murry has mulitple identities: walk-on basketball player, mentor, accounting major, McNair Scholar and Christian. Introspective by nature, Murry describes himself as a nerd who happens to be athletic. Now with guidance from Dr. Louis Harrison, professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and faculty advisor for the McNair Scholars program, Murry envisions himself holding a Ph.D. by age 33.

It was Harrison’s African Americans in Sport course that exposed Murry to the history of African American athletes who were true scholar-athletes and prompted him to think about how stereotypes affect Black male youths. The course examined the role of stereotypes, identity formation and the impact of the media in framing African-American athletes as “dumb jocks.”

“Tarale began to ask questions that alerted me to his academic potential and his desire to be much more than just an athlete,” Harrison says. “I immediately pointed him to the McNair Program. Since that point he has really blossomed intellectually.”

Harrison sees the McNair Scholars program as a perfect fit for student athletes like Murry.

“The program exposes underrepresented students to mentors they can identify with,” Harrison explains. “It also provides a structure that fills in areas of deficiency while building on student strengths by having high academic expectations and holding students accountable for producing valuable research.”

Murry is planning a research project that will examine how basketball, hip-hop and Christianity influence the Black male identity. He sees hip-hop as integral to Black culture.

“A vast majority of Black youths grow up without a father figure; hip-hop replaces that and Black males identify and embrace the hip-hop culture, often opposing Christianity,” Murry says.

Harrison says his passion is finding former athletes with substantial academic potential and taking them from player to Ph.D. to provide researchers who have an insider’s view on athletics.

“It is my hope that Tarale will join this group,” he says.