Aerial view of the Michigan athletic campus.
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Let’s admit it: being a college athlete comes with many stereotypes. For instance, athletes are perceived as “dumb jocks” who get all their schoolwork done for them by academic advisors. Similarly, there exists the stereotype that athletes get special privileges, live life on “easy mode,” and are exempt from adhering to the same rules as their peers, whether it be attending classes or waiting in line at the bar.

Recognizing the harmful nature of these specific stereotypes is crucial. They undermine the dedication and achievement required to balance the demanding roles of both an athlete and a student, a feat that the majority of college students cannot relate to. 

In an interview with The Daily, Engineering senior and Vice President of the Michigan Sport Business Association, Zach Betron, challenges these stereotypes.

“(Student athletes) truly don’t get enough credit for the amount of time and sacrifice it takes to dedicate themselves to their craft in the midst of being a full-time student,” Betron said “I’ll always have nothing but respect for them.”

Despite Betron’s supportive outlook, many harmful stereotypes still persist. There is, however, one seemingly innocuous yet undeniable stereotype which revolves around the distinct way an athlete adorns themselves with the infamous athlete backpack, parka coat and sometimes, a moped or Spin scooter. It is the athlete starter pack, a clear and unmistakable emblem of their identity as a student athlete.

One Division One softball player at the University of Oregon, Terra McGowan, even joked in a TikTok that “all college athletes do it for the backpack,” implying that the athlete backpack is a tangible badge of honor in the realm of college sports. 

With this in mind, it becomes clear that the athlete backpack holds a unique appeal to athletes. They understand that there is a buried form of magnetism associated with the confidence and physical prowess that athletes exude. Conveniently, the backpack is a brightly colored, obvious sign of this magnetism which can be displayed all day, everyday as students trek across campus. It screams “I am an athlete.”

Discussions with peers revealed that the athlete merchandise rubs some students the wrong way. To some, the backpack can feel like an arrogant, unspoken message that athletes consider themselves superior, flaunting their identity as athletes wherever they go. It is as if high school cliques have seeped into college life, reinforcing an unspoken division between different student groups with alleged variations in social status.

Yet, there is a more nuanced relationship between most athletes and their apparel than simply looking “cool.” For many athletes, sporting their team’s merchandise is about showcasing their sport as a fundamental part of their identity.

In an interview with The Daily, Paul Juda, a graduate student at Rackham Graduate School and the captain of the Men’s Gymnastics Team, shares the impact sports have on student athletes’ sense of self.

“Athletic identity isn’t something that (college athletes) just simply picked up during college and decided to make our ‘thing,’ it’s quite literally been our ‘thing’ for almost 15-20 years and we really know no other way of living,” Juda said.

Consequently, having a tangible symbol of accomplishment can be enjoyable. Maybe that tangible item happens to be a backpack. 

“I think (a lot of freshmen and younger college athletes) get to school and immediately they get to say to their fellow dorm room peers, ‘guess what? I’m an athlete here!’” Juda told The Daily. “They get to show off a piece of their identity and they get to say, ‘I worked my tail off for 10 years to be able to wear something that money just can’t buy.’”

In this light, Juda’s words illustrate how the athlete’s identity is intertwined with their sport, and the logo on their merchandise becomes a symbol of this lifelong journey and dedication. 

Similarly, Betron said he understands this perspective.

“The clothes we wear are a representation of the things we’re interested in, so I think it’s natural that athletes would want to wear their team’s merch and use an athlete backpack,” Betron said.

These expressions of identity through apparel and accessories are often embraced by many student athletes. Despite the backpack’s function as a statement of identity, some athletes might choose not to share this piece of themselves as openly.

“I personally don’t wear my athlete backpack too often,” Juda said. “I used to wear the backpack proudly, but I felt as though it gave away a piece of my identity too quickly. I’m not someone that tries to talk about my gymnastics career or athletic background unless it comes up naturally or is asked of me.” 

Shifting to a more scientific angle, athletes are often labeled as more attractive than the general population, supported by research suggesting a link between facial attractiveness and athletic performance. An Australian dental practice highlights that attributes like a defined jawline, high cheekbones and facial symmetry are closely linked to a healthy dental bite, enhancing airway flow. In contrast, overbites and underbites can hinder airway function, leading to reduced oxygen intake, diminished endurance and ultimately, a lower athletic capacity. 

This perspective provides a scientific rationale for perceiving athletes as more attractive. As such, when we come across individuals donning athlete backpacks and jackets, our brains may automatically link these objects with that person’s attractiveness, making the athlete backpack a symbol not just of athletic excellence but also the holistic allure they represent.

Alternatively, the subtle allure of the athlete backpack could also reflect a broader cultural admiration for discipline, physical fitness and the drive to excel in one’s chosen field. These accessories stand for more than just a love for sports; they represent a commitment to hard work and dedication, qualities that extend beyond the playing field. In the context of the “bubble backpack,” we could be tapping into the virtues of ambition and determination that resonate with athletes.

This concept may be particularly compelling at the University of Michigan since our school excels in many sports. Michigan Football is the team with the most wins in college football history, and Michigan Hockey is tied with the University of Denver for the most national championship wins in history. 

Excellence and success are attractive to people so consequently, attending a university with a legacy of remarkable athletics inherently invokes a sense of awe when spotting one of these exceptional athletes, equipped with their athlete backpack, on their way to class.

“Seeing athletes around campus is a fun reminder that along with their prominence and expertise in their sport, they’re also our classmates and friends,” Betron said. 

We can also look to a different, but more straightforward conclusion: the possibility that student athletes simply carry these backpacks because they are provided to them at no cost with all their other athlete merchandise. And why waste money on buying a different backpack if you are given a nice Nike backpack for free? 

I gravitate toward the alternative conclusion that the athlete backpack isn’t merely a bag. It is a window into a world where hard work, discipline and ambition are the currency of success. It is a glimpse into a realm where dedication is woven into every thread and stitched into every strap. 

So, when you spot an athlete sporting that iconic backpack, remember, it is not just a bag. It is a ticket to a journey of triumph and a tribute to the winning spirit of champions. 

Juda added a humorous nod to his role as both an athlete and a student.

“We can’t possibly be a university that pledges that our athletes are classroom focused and not give them a sweet backpack to rock,” Juda said. 

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist providing an assortment of social commentaries from a female perspective. She can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.