Bowling increases diversity at historically black colleges and universities
Earlier this year, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore's athletic department posted this poll on its Web site: "Which winter team is most likely to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in their respective sport?" Sandwiched between women's basketball and men's track was women's bowling, which led all other choices with just less than 44 percent of the vote.
Conference rival Delaware State's Web site had a similar question. Of the 11 sports on the ballot, bowling had a commanding lead of close to 40 percent.
These two schools are the pace-setters among the women's bowling teams in the nationally dominant MEAC, which comprises 11 historically black colleges and universities. UMES, the 2008 national champion, is the MEAC's flagship bowling program, sitting second in the National Tenpins Coaches Association top 20 alongside national powers Vanderbilt and Nebraska. Delaware State, the conference's defending champion, is ranked third and made the NCAA semifinals last spring. In total, five conference teams, including Florida A&M, Norfolk State and Morgan State, are in the top 20 out of a pool of more than 50 in the NCAA.
But women's bowling is not just the new standard-bearer for MEAC athletics; these days, the sport is also helping to change what a historically black college looks like. As the conference's best teams have cemented themselves in the national rankings, they've attracted many non-black bowlers, which has furthered diversity on campus. UMES currently has no black bowlers and Delaware State has two on its 10-person roster.
Conference-wide this season, 30 percent of the bowlers are non-black, according to statistics provided by the MEAC. That's higher than the overall percentage of non-black students at some of the more diverse schools in the conference, such as UMES, where 22 percent of the students aren't black.
This isn't a new phenomenon, according to UMES Coach Sharon Brummell. The number of non-black bowlers in the conference has become higher over the years as some teams have garnered national attention.
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Less than half a century ago, the MEAC was a bastion of black athletic excellence. The best players in basketball and football regularly moved on to the professional ranks, players such as Florida A&M's Bob Hayes, the Dallas Cowboys great who also won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
But then top predominantly white institutions started recruiting the best black athletes. That, coupled with the need for more women's sports, led the MEAC to look more closely at bowling. In 1996, two years after the NCAA adopted women's bowling as an emerging sport, the MEAC decided to leap in.
With five schools committing to have bowling teams, including UMES and Morgan State, it became the first bowling conference in the country.
"We took a leadership role in establishing it from a national perspective when no one was interested in it," MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas said. "Now 50 or 60 schools have women's bowling."
Over the next five years, the conference's seven other schools added the sport. Bethune-Cookman was the last to organize a team, in 2001.