Jarrod Barnes: PhD student, football player, paradigm changer
EHE doctoral student has big goals for himself and for all student-athletes
Everyone wants to tell Jarrod Barnes what an anomaly he is: A PhD student, the only one ever to play Ohio State football. An athlete who galvanizes elite minds at academic conferences. A 22-year-old African American male who wants to change the very culture that brings some athletes down.
Yet the Special Teams safety insists he’s just like other athletes. And he’s made it his mission to let people know.
Records are murky; football has been part of Ohio State since 1890. Still, the consensus from Ohio State’s Department of Athletics is that Barnes is the only football player — and perhaps one of a few Ohio State athletes in any sport — to play while enrolled in a PhD program.
What he’s achieved, his advisor says, is prodigious. After a high-school career riddled with injuries, Barnes earned a bachelor’s degree in three years while playing safety for the University of Louisville. He came to Ohio State last year with two years’ eligibility, having red-shirted his freshman year.
After earning a walk-on spot last season with the Buckeyes, he played while juggling a packed course load in his Masters of Science in Sport Management program at the College of Education and Human Ecology. He graduated in one year with a 3.67 GPA, just as he was accepted into the department’s PhD program.
Four years. Two degrees. Two football teams. One colossal agenda.
“He might seem too good to be true, but he really is,” said Brian Turner, Barnes’s advisor and associate professor of sport management. “He is the first student I’ve ever had who came with a business plan. Most have no idea what they want to do but he had a developed business plan about why he was going to come to Ohio State.
“I was shocked,” he said.
An ambitious undertaking
What Barnes wants to do is no small endeavor either.
His business plan amounts to reversing a cultural mindset, disproving the notion that athletes can’t excel in the classroom or off the playing field. He’s tackling societal norms that sometimes deify athletes, and sometimes debase them. And he’s backing up his approach with research and an ambitious curriculum for high school and college athletes. (He shared his plan with NCAA officials in March.)
His ideas are gaining traction with educators and advocates of student athletes. He presented at four conferences last year, including the College Sport Research Institute conference in South Carolina.
“Honestly, he was the star,” Turner said. “Everybody raved about his experience as a student athlete. The faculty members couldn’t stop talking about what a great job he’d done in the panel discussion.”
Barnes ran out of business cards — yes, he had them — after the presentation.
What had the academicians so pumped? Barnes leveled with them about the challenges, social stigma and outright fear that grips high school and college athletes.
“So many people just see us at the stadium on Saturday, but they don’t see the Monday through Friday part of it,” he said.
The hours of critical training. The hyper-intensive environment that consumes the athlete. The culture that pushes and prods.
“You’re thinking about it all the time. You want to do well; you want to make your family proud; you want to make your coach proud,” he said. “You’re in the classroom but you’re not really there. You care about (academics) but that football part of you is huge.”
Athletes — many recruited since middle school — have become so acculturated to perform athletically, they don’t know how to act in other settings, Barnes said.
“It goes back to fear of failure. In class, you don’t want to seem dumb if you don’t know the answer so you don’t answer and don’t participate. You’re afraid to fulfill that stereotype.”
The first day of an advanced anatomy class at University of Louisville, Barnes realized he was the only black male and only athlete in the room.
“I didn’t see any people who looked like me,” he said. “I was afraid to ask for help because I didn’t know if the professor would view me differently. I didn’t engage with my peers because I was afraid of looking stupid. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He barely earned a C-minus.
Nonetheless, he graduated early. Feeling the call to be somewhere else, he found himself being re-recruited. A powerhouse team — he won’t say which — offered him a football scholarship then reneged two weeks before he was to move there. The experience peeled the blinders from his eyes. (“This is a business,” he said.) It also gave him something to push for.
“So many people have been left hanging and don’t know what to do,” not just college recruits, but would-be professional athletes, he said.
Less than two percent of college football, basketball and soccer players turn pro, according to the NCAA. And yet, more than half of college football and basketball players envision themselves becoming professional athletes.
“You’re put on a pedestal from such an early age that it then becomes your persona or character,” he said. “These kids, so young, are being shown around and treated so much differently than the average 14-, 15- and 16-year-old . . . They have a huge sense of entitlement already when they get to college.”
Barnes wants to “reframe” that student athlete experience, and he’s testing his approach as he goes.
As part of his master’s thesis, he piloted a supplemental curriculum last year at Columbus South High School. Ten academically ineligible players became his students from January until April. He talked to them about setting goals, about what they want to do outside of sports.
“I got a lot of blank stares the first couple of weeks,” he said.
He taught them to reflect on their skills and build upon their strengths. He showed them how to take notes and prepare for tests. He taught them to harness constructive criticism and convinced them to sit at the front of class.
After one quarter, the students’ GPAs increased by an average .25 points, enough to make some eligible to play.
“It showed me that what I’ve been thinking is possible,” Barnes said. “And I think I can do it on a larger scale” in high schools and on college campuses.
It’s an ambitious undertaking: Retraining minds in a way that runs counter to everything society tells them.
“I’m trying to build all those intangible skills — communications, leadership, business skills, etiquette, professional development — that when you pair them with what we already have as athletes, that competitive drive . . .” well, the sky’s the limit.
And Jarrod Barnes is the proof.