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Perspective: Could Sports Help Heal Racial Division in America?

Originally published on January 22, 2017

Photo credit: Huffington Post

This Blog post contains excerpts from an article I wrote that was published in the Journal of International Diversity (2013, Issue 3, p34-45). In light of the last few years of racial unrest and violence in America, I wanted to share these observations on how we can potentially help reduce this division through the use of sports as a microcosm within which to find commonalities.

The Montgomery, Alabama, metropolitan area is a location replete with opportunities to observe Black and White interactions in a variety of contexts. For purposes of this paper, observation took place neither interacting with the subjects nor actively participating in the environment, using a popular venue common to persons of both racial groups as the study environment—a local bowling establishment. 

Cultural Construct and Generalizability

Montgomery, Alabama, provides a dichotomy of social thought based on a rich history. The city was the first Capitol of the Confederate States of America, with a plantation culture that defined its societal and political characteristics (Shelley, Archer, Davidson, & Brunn, 1996). Conversely, Montgomery was the torch that ignited the civil rights movement of 1955 through 1968, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a White man on a public bus, in keeping with the repressive laws and culture that defined the Deep South since post-Civil War reconstruction (Kennedy, 1989). This cultural dichotomy provided an unusual social culture in Montgomery, with part of the community representing cultural integration and another sector of “still fighting the Civil War” and maintaining racial and cultural segregation at an individual level.

Theoretical Basis

Two theories form the foundation for this observational analysis, both influenced by a third theory. Cross’s minority identity theory has two general assumptions regarding race and identity: (1) racial identity occurs in some form in every person and (2) positive group experiences are psychologically important (Helms, 1990). Similarly, Helms’ theory of White identity development stated that an individual “must accept his or her own Whiteness, the cultural implications of being White, and define a view of self as a racial being that does not depend on the perceived superiority of one racial group over another” (Helms, 1990, p. 9). Some similarities exist between Cross and Helms’ theories as a continuum (Table 1).

Table 1

Comparison of Cross’s Minority Identity Theory and Helms’ White Identity Development

Influencing the personalization of Cross and Helm’s theories is Schlossberg’s transition theory, which defined development in terms of events resulting in changed relationships, roles, routines, and assumptions. Schlossberg identified three types of transitions—anticipated, unanticipated, and non-event (Schlossberg, Waters, & Goodman, 1995). Unlike Erikson, Feldman, and Newcomb’s cognitive development theories, Schlossberg’s transition theory allows bidirectional movement rather than linear progression (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Schlossberg’s Transition Theory


The subjects observed included three pairs of lanes that included both White and Black team members. Subjects were cataloged using a three-letter code based on age group, race, and gender as follows:

First character                 Second character                Third character______

O = Old                                B = Black                               M = Male

M = Middle-aged             W = White                             F = Female

Y = Young


Observations occurred during and evening league. The bowling league ran from 6:15 p.m. to approximately 8:45 p.m., with the first 15 minutes designated as practice (non-competitive) time. Observations occurred on three different pairs of lanes, with about 30 minutes of observation on each pair. Each pair of lanes included two teams, with four bowlers on each team. The bowlers competed for three games.

General Gathering

During the 20-30-minute period prior to the commencement of practice bowling, league bowlers arrived at the bowling alley and prepared for their league competition. This included greeting other bowlers, preparing their equipment, and purchasing a beverage from the snack bar or lounge. During the time that bowlers arrived and prepared for their league competition, the mood throughout the bowling alley was relaxed, marked by greetings and light conversation. Conversations were fully integrated rather than segregated—this applied to race and gender integration. The single exception to integration across demographics was that smokers de facto segregated from the rest of the observed persons because of a rule at the bowling alley during league play that prohibited smoking in the area immediately adjacent to the lanes.

Group One (n = 8)

Lanes for the league commenced practice and, after 15 minutes, competitive play simultaneously. The first game started with good attitudes exhibited by all eight people. One four-person team consisted of three OWF and one MWM. One OWF participated minimally in conversation, while two OWF conversed about other women they knew. The other team consisted of one OBM, one MBM, one MWM, and one MBF.

The three Black bowlers on the second team sat together and conversed throughout, with visits regularly from an OBF from another pair of lanes. The mood was positive with smiles and laughter. The MWM on the second team stood away from the three Black team members, conversing with his wife for most of the observed period. He spoke with the three Black members when congratulating them (or they, him) for good bowling shots.

On the first team, the MWM became more talkative to his teammates following what he considered poor bowling shots on his part. The rest of the time, he was quiet and spoke on occasion only about bowling. As the game neared its end, one OWF on the first team became increasingly agitated at herself when she felt her bowling shot was not as good as she was capable of delivering. When she returned to the table, her conversation turned from a discussion about acquaintances to comments about bowling issues.

On the second team, one MBM became increasingly agitated at himself, resulting in less consistency in his bowling shots. His discussion turned from social rhetoric to complaining about his performance and, to some degree, isolation from his teammates. The OBM followed suit with the MBM, exhibiting the same characteristics. The MBF showed little affect, as though bowling had become an unwanted distraction from socialization.

Group Two (n = 8)

On the second set of lanes observed, the first team of four bowlers included one OBF, two MWF, and one MWM. The second team consisted of two OWF, one OWM, and one MWM (who was also in a wheelchair).

On the first team, the OBF stayed isolated from her three teammates. She made excursions to talk with the three Black bowlers described at the previous pair of lanes. Her mood appeared to be more energetic after chatting with the other Black bowlers. The other three teammates congregated on the concourse, where they could smoke together.

On the second team, the MWM and MWF sat and conversed together, separately from the other teammates. By reviewing the bowling lineup on the overhead scoreboard, it became apparent that the two individuals were husband and wife.

On the first team, the ONF occupied herself when not bowling by reading from an Amazon Kindle. Other than socializing with the three Black bowlers mentioned above, she had no social interactions.

Group Three (n = 8)

On the third pair of lanes observed, the first team consisted of two OWF, one MWF, and one MWM. The second team consisted of two OWM, one OBM, and one MWF.

On the first team, the MWF and MWM sat together and conversed regularly, both about acquaintances and their bowling game. However, as they began to bowl poorly, each began vocalizing their displeasure with their bowling performance and then sat isolated from conversation until their next shot.

On the second team, the OBM and one OWM conversed regularly, including talk about acquaintances and bowling. On occasion, the OBM conversed with the MWF. The OBM was very outgoing and well integrated into the group with WM and WF.

Exhibiting a different level of interaction than the other two sets of lanes and associated teams, as bowlers on each team on the third pair of lanes bowled well, the intra- and inter-team social interaction increased, predominantly congratulatory of each other after good bowling shots. The teams, although competitive, were also very congenial with one another.

Culture: Interactions and Inferences

Interactions between Black and White bowlers were relaxed and friendly during the period when bowlers were arriving at the bowling alley prior to the commencement of league play. There was mixing of subjects without homogenous racial grouping. Conversations were generally social, rather than focused on bowling. That attitude prevailed until the commencement of practice time prior to league play, during which time bowlers chose seats based on racial homogeneity.

The degree to which Black and White team members interacted varied from team to team; however, two constants occurred. First, the degree to which Black bowlers integrated with White bowlers outside the competitive regime was indicative of internalization—Cross’s fourth stage of Black racial identity (Helms, 1990). Likewise, White bowlers demonstrated non-racist attitudes and behaviors, or autonomy, as defined in Helm’s theory of White identity development (Helms, 1990). Second, as bowling performance became unsatisfactory to individuals, the Black bowlers became increasingly introspective. This behavior, coupled with sitting with racially homogenous groups, was indicative of immersion-emersion (Helms, 1990).

One observed behavior that fell outside the regimes of internalization or autonomy was the phenomenon of heightened levels of conversation between Black bowlers from different sets of lanes. A Black female bowler regularly visited with three Black bowlers seated four lanes away, during which time she became more energetic and conversant—behavior that continued for a short period upon her return to her assigned lanes. The energy gained by interaction with a homogenous group was not prevalent among White bowlers in the same venue.


Making inferences regarding the general population from observations in a limited scope is difficult and, some may assert, unreliable (Starbuck & Mezias, 1996). However, some observations allow generalization to a broader population because they are supported by accepted behavioral or developmental theory. There are some inferences that may be based on the observed behaviors in this study, both to a general population, the Montgomery metropolitan area, or to people who participate in bowling—that is in some ways a culture in itself.

When gathering prior to the commencement of league, the subjects demonstrated behavior indicative of the evening bowling league providing a respite from the business of the work week or the opportunity for parents to have a night out without their children. This applies generally by concluding that an evening away from work or household stressors has a positive effect on adult bowlers. As the competition progressed, all bowlers became introspective to some degree, but Black bowlers also isolated themselves by maintaining association predominantly with other Black bowlers. This generalizes that Black bowlers, when confronted with performance-based stress, are likely to seek a homogenous group of peers, reflected by the immersion-emersion stage of Cross’s minority identity theory (Helms, 1990).

One case in which the paradigm of withdrawal into a homogenous group during stressful times did not apply was within the third group of bowlers observed, where the older Black man continue to sit with and converse regularly with an older White man on his team. The older Black man appeared—throughout the evening—integrated completely with the White bowlers in the league. In his case, he exhibited fully the characteristics of the developmental stage of internalization (Helms, 1990).

A Greater Understanding of Culture

The observations made for this brief study provided insight into Black culture in the Montgomery metropolitan area. Although some behaviors were consistent with accepted psychosocial theories, there were deviations observed. The deviations may be influenced by the common interest in bowling or the limited variation in age groups. As such, conclusions based on these observations apply only among other subjects in the same environment and possessing similar personal characteristics.

From an analysis of the observations for this study, two points of understanding emerged. First, the degree to which Black and White bowlers integrated during times when negative stressors were absent indicated they had transcended the developmental influence of racial prejudice and could view people as something other than a racial stereotype. Second, when negative stressors became present the bowlers tended to find more comfort sitting and conversing with people of their own race.

The Value of Inferences

Inferences provide bases upon which to develop models of human behavior. Inferences are used by marketing firms, technology designers (Orwant, 1991), architects, persons considering opening a new business, education administrators, and diplomats, to name a few.  The bowling alley at which the observations occurred used inferences to adjust the programs available to prospective patrons. For example, a few months after these observations occurred, the bowling alley became the last of four local bowling establishments to become non-smoking venues; however, since smoking was still allowed in the bar, smokers took breaks in the bar, further removing them from socialization with non-smokers. The non-smoking decision was a business decision because the establishment’s owners noticed that local school and youth groups were taking their business to other bowling alleys that did not permit smoking. The inference made by the owners was that the local bowling establishment will gain more business—school and youth groups—if they convert to a non-smoking environment because they are closer to local schools and churches, so the groups will stay local rather than drive extra distance for the same or similar service.


Observations during an evening of bowling provided some insights into Black, White, and integrated behaviors. Some of these insights may extrapolate to provide inferences to other patrons of adult leagues at local bowling alleys. While the inferences apply in the narrow scope of local bowling establishments, analysis of the observations indicated a need to conduct phenomenological research to examine further social culture. A study focusing on reactions and behaviors related to the phenomena of good bowling or bad bowling would define further threads of common behaviors, particularly if the study occurred over a larger sample population of bowlers during scheduled league play.

NOTE: It must be understood that this observational study was a snapshot study taken without consideration of other variables that existed outside the microcosm studied. Because of this “study in a bubble,” results could potentially differ from a similar study accomplished today, given the increased racial divide and violence of the last four years.


Helms, J. (1990). Black and white racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Kennedy, R. (1989). Martin Luther King’s constitution: A legal history of the Montgomery bus boycott. The Yale Law Journal, 98(6), 999-1067.

Orwant, J. (1991) Doppelganger: A user modeling system. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Richardson, I. (2000). Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), 253-255.

Schlossberg, N., Waters, E., & Goodman, J. (1995). Counseling adults in transition. New York, NY: Springer.

Shelley, F., Archer, J., Davidson, F., & Brunn, S. (1996). Political geography of the United States. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Starbuck, L., & Mezias, J. (1996). Opening Pandora’s Box: Studying the accuracy of managers’ perceptions. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 17(2), 99-117.

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