Bridging the racial divide with the help of sports

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The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences puts his own research into practice

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Kendrick Brown believes in athletics as part of the college experience—not only because he appreciates sports, but also because his own research has shown the potential of sports to bring people together.

“There are some people who wonder about the role of sports in college,” says Brown, who played basketball in high school. “If you’re offering a residential experience and don’t think about sports, you’re missing a huge piece of what the college experience can be in a very positive way. Sports bring people together. As a community, we can share in the victories and defeats.”

Brown has data from his own research to back that up. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he used athletics as a vehicle to test the “intergroup contact theory,” now widely accepted in the field. The theory posits that positive feelings result from contact among members of different groups if four conditions are met: members have equal status; a sense of interdependence; cooperative interactions; and support for their activities from authority figures.

Working with colleagues, including his graduate advisor, James S. Jackson of the Program for Research on Black Americans, Brown surveyed student-athletes of different races who participated in a range of sporting activities. As the researchers expected, the more contact, the more positively athletes felt about other racial groups and the more sympathetic they were to policies helping those groups.

What surprised the researchers was how nuanced the results were. “The size of the effect depended on what kind of sport students were playing,” notes Brown. “For instance, cooperative team-based sports—basketball, baseball, football, and volleyball, for example—showed a greater effect than individualistic sports, such as swimming, golf, and track. If you’re playing an individualistic sport, I believe it’s still possible to benefit from positive [intergroup]dynamics, but you need to be a little more intentional.”

While today much of Brown’s research focuses on the related topic of “allies” (individuals willing to stand up for members of another racial group), he acknowledges he frequently uses insights from his early work in his roles as professor and dean.

In the classroom, for example, he paves the way to tackling difficult topics, such as racism, by creating a sense of interdependence and shared goals among his students. “[At the beginning of the semester,] students participate in setting the guidelines for discussion and agree to abide by them,” he says. “You have to establish that sense of community, that sense of everyone doing something shared, before you can enter into those tough conversations.

“Working together doesn’t mean that we don’t express strong opinions or that we don’t disagree, but that we’re all trying to achieve a larger goal.”

What unifies Brown’s approach to both academics and student life is not only his perspective as a social psychologist, but also a commitment to keeping what matters top of mind.

“Education is not just something in the classroom,” he says. “Education is something that happens with any interaction on this campus—all of these possibilities to learn, grow, and develop tools to make the world a better place. Sports at a college are essential—you just want to make sure they are structured in a way that is going to benefit the students. That’s at the heart of everything I do.”

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