With the increased visibility of mental health and social justice issues in sport, there has been a shift from the medical model to the holistic care paradigm for work with student and professional athletes. Holistic care considers not only the physical, but also the mental and spiritual health of athletes, which requires a collaborative and interdisciplinary care team. Sport, thus, is an emerging scope of practice for social workers as more and more youth, intercollegiate, and professional sport organizations have hired social workers in both the case management and clinical capacities as part of athletes’ care networks. However, there has been little recognition from social work schools of the intersection of social work and sport. There are few courses and field placements in athletics. This begs the question of why traditional social work programs have been hesitant to adapt training opportunities in sport. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to determine if, and in what ways, sport fits as a scope of social work practice.
Nine of the fifteen licensed social workers embedded in Division I college athletic departments were interviewed about their role and experiences working in sport. Initial inductive thematic analysis was completed, from which we noticed overlap with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. Therefore, data was then recoded deductively by applying the six core values of social work—service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence—to the participants’ experiences.
The deductive thematic analysis found that all nine of the licensed social workers identified different experiences and scope of their practices that fit individually into the six core principles of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
Conclusions and Implications:
As of this January, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is requiring Power Five athletic programs to provide access to mental healthcare for their student-athletes, and we are seeing similar programmatic trends in both youth and professional sport. Consequently, there is growing demand for social workers in sport; however, social work programs are not graduating social work students with the knowledge and experience to fill these positions. As the NASW Code of Ethics can be considered the foundation of social work practice, the results of this study suggest that social work has a place in sport, and social workers embedded in athletic organizations are practicing ethically and within the scope of social work practice. Additionally, the social workers’ experiences offer key insights into the unique social work issues in sport as they relate to the core principles of social work practice—i.e. what are the main social justice issues facing athletes and what type of training is needed to work competently in sport—which can inform curriculum development. Social work schools should consider adding specific courses on issues and practice in sport, and field offices should consider offering placements within athletic departments.