Stereotypes 101: Nerds v. Jocks
By Daniel Chiu, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, November 12, 2007
Quick, what's the opposite of a "jock?" If you said "nerd" (like I did), you're probably not alone. Jocks versus nerds. Body versus mind. Hulking, football-jersey-wearing meatheads versus skinny, bespectacled computer geeks. The dichotomy between brains and brawn is one that has been reinforced and perpetuated by countless movie, television and pop culture references.
The ubiquity of these stereotypes reflects an interesting phenomenon: When it comes to collegiate male athletes, there seems to be a deeply ingrained incompatibility in our collective consciousness between size, strength and athleticism on the one hand, and academic achievement and intellectualism on the other. I am especially referring to athletes who are bigger and broader and tend to advertise their size and physicality more readily than others. There seems to be a subtle undercurrent of low expectations and stereotyping for these individuals: They're "jocks," so they can't possibly be all that bright or do that well in school. And surprisingly, it appears that it is mainly fellow students who hold this perception; according to a junior member of the varsity basketball team, professors, in his experience, have never resorted to "dumb jock" labels. Rather, he says, "non-athlete [students] at Dartmouth...are more likely to stereotype basketball and football players as such."
I wonder about the extent to which these perceptions are internalized by our very own student athletes. Do we, as a community, hold a stigma against "jocks?" Do we believe them to be less qualified to hold certain positions, to participate in intellectual discourse, and indeed, to be here in the first place? It is unfortunate that we seem to live in a culture in which the concepts of being both mentally and physically robust are not allowed to completely cohere.
I always thought it was a bit ironic that the Ivy League, now associated with rigorous academics and ivory tower intellectualism, was originally founded as a collegiate sports conference -- a clear testament to the spirit of athleticism. Although Dartmouth does not technically offer athletic scholarships and although Ivy League athletics probably does not hold the place of prominence it once had in our culture, the College still recruits heavily for its sports teams. No one can deny the importance of outside-the-classroom activities, including sports, in shaping one's education. Still, there is a perception that a double standard exists for athletes versus non-athletes -- that recruits were given a leg up during the admissions process. This perception undoubtedly fuels the stigma of the dumb, unqualified jock (and was the source of much controversy a few years ago when then-Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg claimed that the football program was hurting the academic quality of the College).
The slowly diminishing concept of "well-roundedness" also contributes to the dichotomy. In our hectic, activity-filled world, where sleep and sanity are often sacrificed for the sake of juggling a laundry list of extracurricular activities, it is easy to understand our inclination to believe that we can't "have it all" (i.e., athletes who have practices twice a day can't possibly do as well in classes while eggheads who live in the library can't be good at sports). For many athletes, sport takes up the majority of the week, leaving little room to establish an identity off the court. Even non-athletes are so bogged down with activities that they have to pick and choose a couple to participate in. It is this kind of specialization that has heralded the death of the "well-rounded" individual. We can be either "this" or "that," "jocks" or "nerds." But we can't have it both ways.
This reductionist view of the world -- this tendency of ours to reject complexity in favor of stereotype -- is both natural and unfortunate. It is also arguably the root of many of our campus controversies, including the latest uproar over gender relations. No, frat boys aren't all sexist, chauvinistic pigs and no, sorority girls aren't all bulimic, image-conscious sexual objects. But for some reason, the world is easier for us to navigate -- and is made more amenable to crude T-shirts and sweeping indictments of the Greek system -- if we reduce them to such. Perhaps we should follow our professors' leads and learn to forgo the labels that ultimately do nothing but place limitations on what we can achieve and aspire to. If we can't, then maybe it's we who are the dumb ones, not the jocks.