a soccer ball on a field in the foreground. in the background, students are playing


Being part of a sports program during their formative years allows students to learn important life lessons. Athletics can teach students social awareness and other skills considered to be part of social and emotional learning (SEL). As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Social and emotional learning enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.”

Within athletics, key SEL skills are the development of self-awareness, emotional management, and effective decision-making. As educators within athletics, to facilitate effective SEL experiences and programs, we must con-sider the unique experiences and identities of our students. This mission requires an understanding of the roles that intersectionality and trauma play within our athletic department practices, which is essential because participation in athletics improves the well-being of all.

We all have multiple identity markers, such as gender, race, culture, and class. Human beings are complex, and the complexities of identity must be considered when making education policy decisions. The convergence of two or more identity markers, along with the forms of inequality or discrimination that exist for persons with these identities, is known as intersectionality.

When creating policies for athletic departments, intersectionality must be at the front of our minds to foster a learning environment that supports SEL. If educators fail to address intersectionality, it becomes impossible for our students to be their true selves. This is described by author Bettina Love: “When teachers shy away from intersectionality, they shy away from ever fully knowing their students’ humanity and the richness of their identities. Mattering cannot happen if identities are isolated and students cannot be their full selves.”

If our goal as an athletic department is for student athletes to achieve the benefits of self-awareness, emotional management, confidence, and effective decision-making through athletic participation, then all our policies and decisions must account for intersectionality to ensure we are meeting the needs of our student athletes’ complex identities.

Intersectionality and Title IX

Many of the current policies that drive athletic departments fail to address intersectionality. An example is the way that secondary schools and districts determine Title IX compliance. The purpose of Title IX was to provide gender equity within education and athletic participation. Today, compliance is most determined by comparison of the proportion of enrollment and athletic participation by gender.

The proportion of female students enrolled should be similar to the proportion of female participation in athletics. Any break between enrollment and athletic participation is considered a “gap.” An acceptable difference in enrollment and participation proportion is less than 10 percentage points, as described by the National Women’s Law Center in 2015. Athletic directors around the country are using this metric to evaluate their programs to determine if their school or district data meet the policy’s gender equity standard.

The problem with the above policy structure is that program equity is solely determined by gender and does not consider the intersection of race. It assumes that the experiences of female athletes are neutral within the education system. Donaldo Macedo “asserts that educators must understand that education is never neutral.” Focusing solely on enrollment and the participation proportion based on gender can give the illusion that an athletic program is equitable if the proportion is similar.

However, upon examining race along with gender, one may find that female athletes of color are participating at much lower rates than their white counterparts, as described in the 2015 report “Finishing Last: Girls of color and school sport opportunities,” by the National Women’s Law Center. The failure to address intersectionality within Title IX athletic compliance has left girls of color invisible and missing out on the benefits that athletic participation brings, which include a greater social and emotional awareness.

The effects of trauma

There has been a recent focus on the effects of trauma on educational outcomes of students and the benefits of SEL strategies and routines on the healing process. The athletic space is no different. Just as students come to their classrooms with the effects of trauma, so do they come to our athletic programs. Childhood trauma or an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is any potentially traumatic event that occurs in childhood before 17 years of age.

These events include violence and witnessing violence, abuse, neglect, and aspects of an environment that undermine a sense of safety, stability, and bonding. The CDC also finds that children who have experienced more ACEs have dramatically higher rates of negative health outcomes.

In addition to the connection between trauma and health, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris linked childhood trauma and learning and behavioral issues in children. Further, our current social climate, the focus on racial injustices, and our continued struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, only serve to increase the levels of stress and trauma. Simply put, childhood trauma has a major effect on educational outcomes.

a student athlete ties his shoes in a gym, a basketball next to him


Athletics has long been considered an environment within which children can escape and release energy. However, as within academic spaces, trauma can adversely affect learning and behavior. It is for this reason that we must recognize the effect of trauma on students when incorporating SEL strategies within our athletic practice and when developing policies around these practices.

As athletic administrators and policymakers, our role lies in providing training for practitioners in trauma-informed strategies. Much of our required training for coaches is focused on physical health, with courses in concussion awareness, heat illness, and injury prevention. Given the findings described in the sources above, trauma plays a large role in the educational experience of a child. Therefore, training in this area is essential and also should be required.

Consider situations where coaches are motivated to model and teach “good behavior” and “sportsmanship,” and an athlete’s failure to meet those expectations results in disciplinary action that involves punishment or suspension. If the behavior is a result of an ACE, suspension would remove that child from the very activity that provides SEL and, therefore, the much-needed strategies for coping with that trauma.

In addition to her research that establishes the connection between ACEs and learning and behavioral outcomes, Dr. Burke Harris asserts in her 2018 book, The Deepest Well (2018), that some of our traditional disciplinary practices may indeed be harmful and that recognition of the impact of trauma and trauma-informed practices are effective solutions. During this current time of hypervisibility, we are all affected by the daily flow of images, stories, and videos of the worst in our society. On top of the traumatic experiences a student already may have had, the year 2020 has added insult to injury.

Pause and evaluate

As we consider intersectionality and the effects of trauma within athletics, it is important to intentionally evaluate our programs, practices, and policies to ensure maximum benefit for the students we serve. As suggested by Professor Riyad A. Shahjahan, it is necessary to pause and reflect on our practice in order to interrupt some of the ways of being and doing that can be counterproductive.

Pausing is essential to acquiring knowledge, both from our practice and from examining new research information. Athletic directors must create educational opportunities for our coaches and practitioners that address both intersectionality and trauma, which play a significant role in the educational experience of a child. When considering these two factors within our practice as athletic administrators, the question we must ask is not why we should examine intersectionality and trauma-informed practice, but how can we not?

Natalie Randolph (randolph.natalie@gmail.com) was an educator in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for 11 years, serving as one of the first female head football coaches in the country. Diana Parente (dianaparente46@ gmail.com) was the executive director of athletics for the DCPS, managing all aspects of athletic operations.

Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.