Big-Time College Sport Organizational Culture

My dissertation examines organizational culture and rhetoric in the context of big-time college sports. Following Charles Clotfelter (2011)‘s definition, “big-time” sports are characterized by sophisticated business planning, a keen awareness of marketing and media, serious fund-raising, as well as highly paid professional coaching staffs. These teams are widely known thanks to heavy attendance at games, frequent television appearances, other media, and a history of competition. Institutions belonging to the “Power-5” Conferences — The Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Pac-12, and Big-12 — are considered “big-time.”

Scandals/Crisis Discourse


One aspect of this research examines how universities respond when a scandal befalls their campus. Originating in my undergraduate honor’s thesis, I have spent considerable time analyzing official and unofficial discourse related to the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. For example, I have presented on Penn State’s administrative response to the scandal; the Penn State community’s “identity psychosis” over former coach Joe Paterno’s symbolic role in the university; local and national media coverage of the scandal; and Penn State students’ attempts at healing through the Blue Out to End Child Sexual Abuse. In the future, I plan to analyze texts that comment on/memorialize the scandal, such as Happy Valley and Paterno.

Legitimizing Discourse and Myth

The focus of my dissertation is discourse that legitimizes the culture of big-time sport. In other words, whereas my work on scandals examines discourse in response to the many problems in big-time sport, my dissertation specifically analyzes discourse that creates or constitutes that culture. In my view, the most significant legitimizing discourse is the myth of the student-athlete.

Chapter two of my dissertation focuses on one representative Big-time U to explore organizational culture and rhetoric in big-time sports. I develop the theoretical context of collegiate culture by tracing the relationship between athletics and higher education from antiquity to the present. I then analyze organizational culture at Maryland, particularly  focusing on myth, aretē, and “The Maryland Way,” which is a tagline I trace through archival materials, the Athletics Department’s Strategic Plan, and other publicly available texts. Maryland Way

I argue that the myth of the student-athlete functions to legitimize the problematic aspects of big-time sport culture, such as toxic masculinity. It is important to answer this question given the ongoing public controversies surrounding big-time college sport, especially as they implicate the health and well-being of current and former college-athletes. My work builds on existing rhetorical and critical/cultural scholarship on sport and provides an extended critical framework to understand and analyze discourse of and about big-time college sport.

Resistance and Activism in Sport

The final case study in my dissertation examines discourse that resists the dominant myths of big-time sport culture. In particular, I study the rhetoric of the National College Players’ Association. This rhetoric is particularly important to study, since many of the controversies and scandals in big-time sports are a result of negligence and disregard for student-athlete well-being — a value that the NCAA continually claims is part of its institutional fabric.


I have also written about the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal that implicated Michigan State University and U.S.A. Gymnastics and the ways in which various activist athletes, such as Aly Raisman, have advocated for equity and safety in elite sport. Both the Sandusky and Nassar sexual abuse cases are organizational scandals, but much more importantly, they represent system issues of gendered violence in sport.

Future Directions

I plan to collaborate with other scholars in mixed-methods research to explore experiential texts, rituals, and traditions (rhetorical ethnography) at big-time universities to engage critical theory in a new materialist/spatial analysis of sports stadia and facilities to deepen my rhetorical analysis of organizational culture.

Public Scholarship

I believe public scholarship, or the “Public Humanities” is an important endeavor. Check out some recent work I’ve published on Engaging Sports here. Along with the “Blogs I follow” on the right hand of this page, I also have some other sources of public scholarship “bookmarked” here.