CONVERSATION | William Parham, Ph.D., is a professor in the counseling program and chair of the Educational Support Services Department in the School of Education. He also serves as president of the Faculty Senate. His professional focus is the interplay between sport psychology, multiculturalism/diversity and health psychology. Parham has worked with athletes in the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Tennis Association and Major League Soccer, as well as with college, amateur and youth athletes. He has also worked with performance artists in drama, theatre and music. Parham sat down with LMU This Week to discuss his work.
LMU This Week: What drew you to sports psychology?
William Parham: I have always had an interest in sports, in sports performance and the talent, artistry, camaraderie, and the emotional connections that it evokes and cements. Throughout my life I have had a fascination with and curiosity about the intricacies of athletic performances the through-time bonds that develop within and across teams and the sports they represent. Early on I became aware of racial differences and the larger impact race, social class and other dimensions of identity had on the lives of athletes and the sports they pursued and the dreams that fueled their quests. For example, the NBA and NFL are predominantly populated with African-Americans; golf, tennis, are primarily populated with Whites (Caucasians). There remains an undercurrent of race, class, privilege, political and other environmental forces that shape all of athletics from club sports to professional and Olympic levels. I was motivated to go into psychology, which is the scientific study of how people think, feel, and behave, partly as a way to better understand and appreciate the complexities of an athlete’s journey through systems of athletics that are equally complex Also, I felt willing, able and and committed to involving myself in the bigger picture conversations of the social, political and social class factors the influence the world of athletics.
As my career unfolded it became increasingly clear to me that I could make a difference within the athletic arena as a clinician and consultant. Scholarship focusing on various areas within an athlete’s experience also has become an important part of my career. My early entree into the athletic arena was actually in 1982. I was working at UCLA at the time, in the student psych services.
As it turned out, in those days, I was the only African-American staff person psychologist. The Athletic Department had a number of athletes, African-Americans specifically, who asked to see me for whatever reason and/or I was called in because there were a number of them at the time who were on academic probation. So, I started a formal relationship with the Athletic Department, receiving student-athlete referrals and developing workshops and programs targeting both student-athletes and coaches. In ’83 or ’84, the NCAA came out with their drug-testing program which formally broadened my work with the Athletic Department. Two colleagues and I in student psychological services designed the first series of drug and alcohol education programs for the Athletic Department. From that point forward, I began consulting with teams.
LTW: And that led to your work with professional teams?
WP: So yeah, I was working with the UCLA athletic teams. As some of those guys graduated to the pros, my name began to surface as a person who might be able to respond to some of the challenges that professional sports communities were experiencing. Thus, I began consulting with the National Football League, mostly in their rookie-transition program. That led to doing some work with the NBA and their rookie-transition program. That led to becoming a consulting psychologist for the Lakers that I enjoyed for 10 years, Along the way, I was the psychologist for the USA volleyball women’s team in the 1996 Olympics that were held in Atlanta.
I was mentored and groomed and always advised to find something you love doing. “Always have a purpose,” I was told, and in these venues there was a purpose. I really believe that there was a need to be filled and I was in a position to fill it, or contribute to filling it. A desire to engage in activities with meaning and purpose has guided everything that I’ve done.
Over the years I’ve worked with professional athletes, elite athletes, and performing artists, and I still consult with the NBA, still write and publish in the area of sports psychology and I have other interests as well. Health psychology, multicultural and diversity variables that shape life’s trajectory and trauma. I teach trauma courses here at LMU and will to be doing a lot more work in that area. But it’s all rooted in wanting to make a difference, wanting to have a purpose.
LTW: Is there a spiritual basis for your work?
WP: Fundamentally, everything I do professionally comes from a spiritual root. I really do believe that each of us is here in time and space for a reason. It’s no accident that you are in this room right now interviewing me about this subject, that you are at LMU or that I’m at LMU at this point in our lives, versus any other place in the world. And I believe, further, that the moment we were born, we had all the innate God-given gifts and talents that we would ever need in order to navigate our life’s journey.
In class and in other presentations I deliver I sometimes ask the audience if they’d ever seen the sunrise or sunset. Invariably, everybody says “Of course!” However, they soon reconnect with the bottom-line reality which is that they never have, will not today and never will see the sun rise in the east and set in the west. The sun is at the center of the universe and never moves. Rather, earth revolves around its axis and around the sun creating the illusion that the sun rises and that it sets. At midnight, even when experiencing the darkest, coldest, wettest storm, a time when there is zero evidence of the sun, the sun is still where the good Lord placed it. Because we can’t see the sun doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means we can’t see it.
So, I believe that the Creator gave each us of a sun represented in our abilities, creativities, talents and genius. Further, we have an abundance of these innate gifts and no matter what we do we can’t get rid of them. In short, I believe that life, is about discovering the gifts, talents and genius that we were born with. Every position I have had, every client I’ve seen in my private practice, every book chapter or journal article I’ve written, every class I’ve taught, every presentation I’ve delivered, every person I’ve talked to individually, every environment I’ve been in — all those environments are designed to stimulate out of me that which I already possess
A goal at the end of my life’s journey is to be able to respond to two questions I believe the Creator will ask me. The first question is: How much of the innate gifts, talents and genius I gave you, did you discover? The second question: Did you use those gifts, talents and genius in service to others?
LTW: We often think of sports as simply fun and games. Is it?
WP: In short, no. Sports for the athlete, is an expression of their talent, provides them a public arena to showcase who they are and what they want to be. It is a way of making money, so it is a career. Owners of sports team are goal-directed to make money. Thus, sports is a business. Further, professional sports are part of the entertainment industry. At it’s core, sports is entertainment, it’s theatre, and it’s theatre and entertainment that brings in billions of dollars. Large and very engaged fans tickets sales, television revenue and team merchandise jerseys, hats, cap collectively contribute to billions of dollars in yearly revenue.
Also, professional sports have expanded their markets from domestic to international, so many teams now have global appeal. The advent of television, in the early and formative years of professional sports, and now cable, internet and social media with 24/7 access to information has expanded markets and potential for revenue. Despite significant challenges within sport communities, such as the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — CTE — concern in the National Football League, huge revenues continue to be generated.
LTW: So the fan base plays a crucial role?
WP: Absolutely! Athletic and team competitions represent opportunities for fans to wonder what it would have been like were they to have been an athlete. It provides some level of a voyeuristic peek into the lives of other people relative to how they conduct themselves, how they succeed, how they respond to on field/on court challenges, how they grew up and overcame obstacles, how they maintained their current posture in life. For some, team competitions allow them to replay in their minds their glory days as athletes. Being able to re-live past successes, acclaim and stardom feels refreshing. Lastly, viewing and feeling engaged in athletic competitions allows some fans an opportunity to escape the issues, challenges and concerns that frame their life. So, fans reap a lot of emotional benefits from viewing athletic competition.
LTW: A lot of your work has been in sports psychology, but you’ve also done a lot of work in diversity, inclusion and social justice issues. So, my question is: How does that intersection of social justice and sports psychology play itself out? Does one inform the other?
WP: Whether we’re talking about sports psych as a discipline, whether we’re talking about diversity or multiculturalism as a discipline, the common denominators are people and the social environment or context in which they are raised. So, all people, whether you’re an athlete or not, have certain factors that are able to influence how they grow.
There are six main categories: your parents, your family, your community, your school systems, your church or spiritual practices, and the media. Those are the six social forces that influence how we are raised and they provide the context within which we function and adapt throughout life. So, at the end of the day, whether you’re an athlete or not, we are all survivors of those six social forces, and so whether you’re African-American, gay, Catholic or Muslim or Jewish, athlete or non-athlete, LGBT, physically challenged or disabled, it doesn’t really matter, it’s at the core of your person.
You have to understand who you are as an individual and in the context in which you were raised. Ultimately, important contexts also include experiences defined as “ism”: ideological beliefs and practices, (e.g., racism, sexism, agism, ablism, socio-economic status). Collectively, these are the variables that influence how people think, feel and behave.