Wayne L. Black Jr. seeks to make college athletics more equitable

College athletics is often framed as the ultimate even playing field. One of pure opportunity, where anyone can succeed — so long as they’re willing to put in the hard work. It’s a notion that’s been rehashed time and time again by commentators, everyday fans and Hollywood Cinderella stories.

KU researcher Wayne L. Black Jr. is challenging the simplicity of that narrative.

A former college athlete himself, Black’s work is informed by his own first-hand experience and intimate knowledge of the industry’s bright spots, as well as its deep shortcomings. Through his doctoral studies in KU’s Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies program, he’s shedding light on the complex inner workings of collegiate athletics, and exploring ways to make the industry a more equitable space for players.

Tell us about the focus of your research.

I am a college sport researcher grounded in higher education, organizational theory/behavior and sociology tenets. So, what does that mean? I use my research to understand college athletics as a complex organization with varying levels of issues. Some days that means I’m doing organizational level analysis, while other days I’m looking at individual outcomes. For me, it’s all about creating practical research that helps to liberate college athletes and make college athletics as an industry more equitable.

“I want a better system for future college athletes and that’s what motivates me.”

How did you come to be interested in this topic?

I love sports and I’m a former college athlete, so my interest starts there. In 2015, I got introduced to higher education as a field to study and work in, so as I learned about that I got interested in learning more about student outcomes. I already had some experience working in human resources and operations management, so I’d been interested in understanding people which is where the org theory/behavior and sociology interest come into play.

My work is important because college athletics is sold as this great opportunity for college athletes and for people to work in. While that’s true to an extent, the overarching system is extremely flawed. Exploitation runs rampant through systemic pressures, whether that’s limiting college athletes’ rights or overworking staff or even keeping certain institutions out of structural arrangements that could help alleviate pressures those institutions face. At worst, college athletics can be an extremely toxic and harmful place, especially for Black and brown people, women and LGBTQIA+ people, and there can be this insidious culture to protect abusers.

My work is intentionally designed to disrupt the system by highlighting these issues. I want a better system for future college athletes and that’s what motivates me. I also have this chip on my shoulder because college athletics research doesn’t fit neatly into higher education journals, so there’s this constant battle to get my work respected in the field. I like competing a lot so that keeps me pushing to show people that my work is dope and will break the mold of what people think higher education research is. It’s all about disruption and turning things on their head for me and that motivates me.

What’s one thing that you think everyone should take away from your research?

Don’t take anything at face value, particularly sport fans. That’s really what I challenge people to do who read my work. If we let the media and institutions tell it, college athletics is this great thing that if you work hard enough you can use to get a college degree. However, that’s just not true at all. It’s great for some athletes, mainly white athletes from middle-class/wealthy backgrounds, but for many this system is oppressive. People will say the system is broken, but it’s absolutely not broken. It’s working exactly how it is designed to work, but if we don’t critically question it and push things past what we see then we will never be able to build a new system. So, if there’s one thing to take from work it’s do not take anything at face value.

What’s the value of conducting research at KU and in the School of Education & Human Sciences?

For me, the value of doing research was skill development. I came into this wanting to get a R1 tenure track role, so I had a bit of a game plan/strategy behind why I came to KU and how I was going to use this time to get research done. In the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies department, I had space to do my own thing, while also learning from some great faculty mentors.

“The connections that the Higher Education faculty have and their willingness to put me in contact with others or challenge me to do more was an extremely valuable part for me.”

College athletics is interdisciplinary and by coming to KU, I got to do research that really leaned into that. It took a lot of independent work because often times I’m doing my papers that are much different from my faculty, but I got some great foundational mentoring at the beginning of my research career which helped me get to this point. The connections that the Higher Education faculty have and their willingness to put me in contact with others or challenge me to do more was an extremely valuable part for me.

I do caution others who might read this and think they want to follow my path though. You have to be willing to do independent work, and that doesn’t work for everyone. Just be diligent in looking at opportunities and understand that my path through research is not a traditional path, so just take everything within the context.

What are your favorite non-academic hobbies?

Outside of academics, I play video games, mainly Madden NFL football. That’s probably my number one hobby year-round, but a close second is wrestling. I coach middle and high school wrestling, and have coached college wrestling. That’s a big part of my identity as a former college athlete and how those experiences really shaped my life, so I put a lot of time into that.

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KU School of Education & Human Sciences

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