"What sport did you play? None? Well, was psychology just an easier major for getting accepted to Stanford?" This line of questioning reflects a common experience that Black college students face on and off campus: first being assumed to be a collegiate athlete, and then wondering if this assumption stands in for other unspoken assertions about your intelligence.

For context, these opening questions were from an actual conversation I had while traveling after graduating from Stanford University in 2014. After a stranger struck up a conversation, I shared that I had just graduated with a major in psychology. On cue, the stranger asked their first follow-up question, the one that I was typically used to: "What sport did you play?"

Some may see this question as a compliment, but it is not—it is an assumption rooted in a longstanding stereotype about Black people. And researchers have shown that Black college students perceive people who demonstrate a belief that Black undergraduates primarily play sports as more prejudiced. Yet, in that moment, instead of asking whether my being Black (and a man) was the source of this (White) stranger's assumption, I simply informed him that I didn't play any sports in college. The stranger next asked the final question—probing whether my majoring in psychology permitted easier admittance. And at that point, the typically unspoken part of their first question was very explicitly revealed as, "Well if not sports, how did you get into a place like Stanford?"

The frequency of personal experiences like this, insights from conversations with other Black college peers (across gender), and research suggesting Black male college students frequently encounter incorrect athlete assumptions motivated my recent research.

My collaborators and I sought to explore these stereotypes and their impact on who is presumed to play sports in college. While much research on race and person perception has focused on Black versus White men, we also wanted to know how Black women are perceived in this context. Using yearbook and online sports rosters, we showed participants the faces of undergraduate non-athlete students and student-athletes. These photos of Black women, Black men, White women, and White men undergrads were presented one by one, in a random order.

We found the same pattern of results across five different groups of participants. Overall, Black (more than White) undergrads and male (more than female) undergrads were more likely to receive an athlete categorization.

We then looked at the intersection of race and gender. When shown photos of Black women, White women, and White men undergrads, participants were more likely to say the undergrad was a student rather than an athlete. But, when shown photos of Black men undergrads, participants were more likely to say they were an athlete rather than a student. And, this tendency to assume Black men were student-athletes was due to more often incorrectly judging Black male non-athlete students to be student-athletes. Furthermore, being perceived to be an athlete was related to also being seen as less academically capable, particularly for judgments of men undergraduates.

You may be wondering, why this social judgment? Understanding the trajectory of race, racism, and athletic stereotypes in the U.S. helps put these findings into context. Being "naturally athletic" is one of the most common stereotypes about Black people across perceived gender. Further, this stereotype has been relatively stable in its association with Black people over the past half-century, attributable to the seemingly positive nature of being stereotyped as athletic. While the stereotype that Black people are athletic is subjectively positive, research suggests that positive stereotypes are often linked to negative attitudes and beliefs. In the U.S., an assumption about good athletic ability, particularly when applied to Black Americans, often incurs an assumption about lack of intelligence.

Yet, Black people have not always been stereotyped as athletic and being athletic was not always strongly linked with negative assumptions about intellectual ability. In the Jim Crow era, Black people were assumed to not be good athletes, as they were assumed not to have the heart or "stomach" for it. Additionally, White people would explicitly express their beliefs that Black people were unintelligent and inferior. However, in the early and middle 20th century, Black men and women began making inroads into many sports at a national level. These successes of Black Americans in the athletic arena stood in stark contrast to the racism pervading U.S. society that oppressed and sought to frame Black people as inferior to White people.

At the same time, social norms about egalitarianism and "not seeing race" took hold after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, making it socially taboo to explicitly endorse that Black people were intellectually inferior. Yet, as reflected in popular sports articles of the time, people routinely endorsed ideas about Black Americans' genetically-granted athletic ability.  Consequently, over time, White people and institutions began to justify Black athletic success as due to natural ability at the expense of intellectual ability, a common stigma that student-athletes generally still face (as in the dumb jock trope). While these stereotypes are applied to Black people as a collective group, the intersection of race with gendered stereotypes and structural sexism (such as inequities in collegiate sports access pre-Title IX, sports media coverage) may explain why judgments of Black women were distinct from Black men in our study.

Today, assuming someone is an athlete can easily be rationalized as a harmless compliment ("Oh, you just look in shape!"). Yet in our research, we find that this biased assumption is driven by a person's perceived race and gender and linked to negative evaluations of academic ability. Generally, the results of our study contribute to broader perspectives in psychological research suggesting that historical ideas over time are embedded culturally and shape modern social perception in meaningful ways, including in the context of race, gender, education, and athletics in the U.S.

Stereotypes may not seem harmful, but it is important to know where they come from and what they may signal in the present. For those who may think that it is not biased to assume that a Black person plays a sport, you may be surprised to hear that most Black undergrads on college campuses, including Black men, do not play sports. On average, less than 10% of Black male undergrads on a college campus are a member of a varsity sports team. Yet in our study, people performed at no better than chance accuracy when asked to decide whether a Black male non-athlete student played sports or not. The lesson: stereotypes don't simply reflect reality, they at times can shape it—and understanding the origins of a stereotype can help clarify its purpose.

Most importantly in my view, regardless of its intent, this athlete assumption may be viewed as prejudiced by Black undergrads, and as a signal that people—faculty, their classmates, or even random strangers—do not see them as belonging in college for their academic ability. So, at the very least, the next time you strike up a conversation with a Black college student or graduate, maybe lead with something other than "What sport did you play?"

For Further Reading

Czopp, A. M., Kay, A. C., & Cheryan, S. (2015). Positive stereotypes are pervasive and powerful. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(4), 451–463. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615588091

Harper, S. R. (2015). Black male college achievers and resistant responses to racist stereotypes at predominantly White colleges and universities. Harvard Educational Review, 85(4), 646–674. https://doi.org/10.17763/0017-8055.85.4.646

Melson-Silimon, A., Spivey, B. N., & Skinner-Dorkenoo, A. (2023). The construction of racial stereotypes and how they serve as racial propaganda. Unpublished manuscript. 10.31234/osf.io/a2m84

Gerald D. Higginbotham is an incoming Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. His research seeks to provide insights into how history functions as an important context for understanding people's social perceptions and support for policy.