Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor in sociology at the University of Alabama Birmingham (see her full biography at the end of this post). In her guest blog post below, Dr. Milner writes about navigating academia with an “invisible” disability, driven, in part, by her determination to “tough it out” as a former athlete.
Transitioning from Playing through to Working through the Pain: Athletics, Positive Deviance, and Being Invisibly Disabled in Academia
Before winter break, we had a college-wide faculty meeting with the Dean of Arts and Sciences to discuss the events surrounding the decision to eliminate football, rifle, and bowling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). As someone who researches race and sex disparities in sport and teaches many student-athletes, I felt the need to express my support and concerns for my students during the meeting. I felt a bit nervous speaking out as a young, non-tenured, cisgender woman, but wasn’t aware of how visibly upset I must have been until after we adjourned. The dean came up to me, gave me what has been dubbed “the Christian side hug,” and asked if I was okay.
I was emotional because I know what it feels like to have a lifelong athletic career taken away. The summer after my freshman year of college, a car accident prevented me from continuing to play college basketball. During my time teaching as a graduate student at the University of Miami (UM), I witnessed a similar sense of loss among student-athletes who were suspended by the NCAA because of the Nevin Shapiro scandal. One of my brightest and most charismatic students, DeQuan Jones, was forced to obtain counsel and sue the NCAA after his indefinite suspension. He won his case and was eventually reinstated. His and many other football and basketball players’ personal reputations were damaged, however, and they suffered extreme losses in their professional draft stock.
I admire DeQuan for standing up to the NCAA and the UAB football team for expressing raw emotion during their meeting with President Watts after he cancelled their program. I was never as brave; throughout the majority of my academic career, I was silent about my car accident and my resulting disability.
Those of us who study sport are well aware of the positive deviant messages athletes receive and internalize from an early age, such as playing through pain, not letting the team down, and winning at all costs. “Positive deviance” is behavior that departs from norms but is interpreted as appropriate, and in sport, often results in hyper-compliance to sport values such as seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits (see Hughes and Coakley, 1991). For me, conforming to this dominant sport ideology began at 10 years of age when I finished a summer league basketball game after breaking my foot, and continued to manifest throughout my athletic career and beyond. No matter how much I was suffering, I put my game face on, which in my academic life consisted of maintaining a smile and performance of an energetic, friendly, and positive self. Fooling my professors, students, and colleagues into believing I was able-bodied resulted in my personal satisfaction of “winning” at my disability.
It took me a year and a half after I was hired at UAB to disclose my disability to colleagues. Interestingly, it was in the form of a party invitation which read:
Please join us for dinner and a toast as we celebrate The Settlement of Milner v. (Insurance Company)
Many of our friends and colleagues are unaware that growing up, Adrienne was a competitive three-sport athlete (she played basketball overseas, consistently contended for AAU national championships, and was recruited to play both basketball and lacrosse in college). However, when Adrienne was 18 years old, she was in a car accident that ended her collegiate athletic career and left her with permanent injuries and chronic pain, After over a decade of litigation, the parties have come to an agreement that validates Adrienne’s suffering and course of medical treatment. Let’s honour Adrienne for what she has accomplished despite these circumstances and support her as she closes this chapter of her life!
Even the last sentence of the invitation conforms to dominant sport ideology, suggesting that I have conquered my disability and moved beyond my physical limitations.
After my car accident, it took me my remaining 3 years of college and another 2 years of graduate school before I registered with disability services, which was not nearly as helpful as it could have been earlier in my education (e.g. using time and a half to complete a 72 hour comprehensive exam with dislocated shoulders and hips, herniated disks, and migraines for me would have been more detrimental than beneficial). Not only did I forego years of services that I was legally entitled to, not disclosing my disability may have resulted in a misunderstanding of my character since presentation of self is so important in academics’ teaching and professional careers. Because of my injuries, some days, I am unable to brush my hair, tie my shoes, or stand for long periods of time. When I am in pain, I generally look rough, act distant, and may vomit as a physical response to the trauma my body is experiencing. Without explanation, this behavior is at best, odd, and at worst, signifies a substance abuse problem.
I’m not sure why I waited so long to tell the people who I saw every day, and who were generally kind, thoughtful, and understanding, that I was disabled. Perhaps it was the competitor in me that never wants to ask for help, or the fear that I would be viewed as incapable of performing my job. Disclosing an invisible disability is difficult, and may not be the right decision in all situations or for all academics. However, sometimes concealing it may also have consequences. I am fortunate to have a wonderful advisor who understands the sport mentality and makes a point to ask how I am feeling, supportive colleagues who covered a week of my classes and sent flowers after I had complications from back injections, and empathetic students who don’t mind when I teach in “tree pose” or pop my shoulders and hips in place during class. I am also fortunate to have witnessed honest communication about what one is entitled to from our football team and from DeQuan, who despite what he unjustly endured, ended up playing professional basketball. That being said, the athlete in me will still enjoy a sense of victory if anyone reading is surprised that I am disabled.
Hughes, Robert and Coakley, Jay. 1991. “Positive Deviance Among Athletes: The Implications of Overconformity to the Sport Ethic.” Sociology of Sport Journal 8: 307-325.
Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Milner’s research addresses issues of equity in terms of race and ethnicity and sex and gender in sports and political contexts. Specifically, she examines disparities in access to sport participation and analyzes the costs and benefits of participation for individuals with complex and diverse identities. Her other work focuses on racial and sexual attitudes, policy preferences, and inequality in the Obama era. She has a forthcoming book with Dr. Jomills Henry Braddock, II on segregation in sport.