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Sport participation and the effect on one’s identity

This is an excerpt from Race, Ethnicity, and Leisure by Monika Stodolska, Kimberly Shinew, Myron Floyd, and Gordon Walker.


Explore the impact on leisure behavior and activity choices with
Race, Ethnicity, and Leisure.

Identity in Sport

Sport participation has become a fixture in the lives of many Americans. From an early age, many people are engaged in or connected to various sporting activities in some fashion. Sport participation crosses many racial and ethnic boundaries; however, one’s identity may lead to an increased participation in particular sports. Because of the strong ethnic labels applied to certain sports, ethnicity may lead people to develop an identity that focuses on participation in a particular sport viewed as self-defining (Harrison et al., 1999b).

This self-defining role ascribed to sport, termed athletic identity (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993), has historical roots, especially when it comes to African Americans in sport. The integration of Black participants in sport in America was a catalyst for a significant amount of sport research focused on race and sport. As mentioned previously, early stages of research on the relationship between race and sport tended to rely on genetic, biological, and anthropometric assumptions that have produced unreliable explanations. However, the phenomenon of the overrepresentation of Black sport participants, especially in a limited range of sports, led sport scholars to question the meanings created by Black sport participants. Based on the historical contexts of race relations between ethnic groups, people’s self-conceptualizations that they are part of a particular racial–ethnic group may contribute vital meanings for them.

Racial and Ethnic Identity Development

The exploration of identity may have important implications for understanding connections to behavior and choice decisions in sport. Research on the racial identity development of Blacks has a long history (see Cokley & Chapman, 2008). A seminal model of racial identity development stemming from this line of research is Cross’ (1971) model of Nigrescence. The Nigrescence model may be applicable across various arenas because it affords researchers the opportunity to examine psychological changes in Blacks’ identification with being Black (Cross, 1995).

In lieu of various adaptations and changes to the model of Nigrescence since its inception, the current four-stage model includes the following stages: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion-emersion, and internalization. In the stage of pre-encounter, a Black person embraces a White worldview ranging from an absence of Black perspective to an anti-Black perspective. The range of these perspectives encompasses three attitudes illustrated as being assimilated, being mis-educated, and having self-hatred (Cross & Vandiver, 2001). An athlete with an assimilationist attitude does not see his race identity as salient in comparison to being an American while likely viewing race as a problem or stigma (Harrison, Harrison, & Moore, 2002). Mis-educated athletes are accepting of racialized, misinformed, and negative stereotypic depictions of Blacks that are often congruent with dominant racist beliefs. Anti-Black attitudes are embraced by those who espouse a self-hatred derived from seeing Blackness as a burden and as associated with a hindrance. The valorization of a White worldview, along with a sense of entitlement derived from athletic achievement, can serve as a crutch for individual identity beliefs in this pre-encounter stage.

The second stage, encounter, is not characterized in the same way as the other stages of the model. Rather, this “stage” comprises an event or series of experiences that pilot a transformational change in the person’s worldview and personal identity. Interpretation of this event or series of experiences associated with the person’s race is troubling, resulting in an exploration of a new identity with regard to race and group identity. The stage for encounter incidents is often set when minority athletes participate at elite levels on college campuses and in predominantly White communities. However, an important point in relation to the Nigrescence model and Black athletes is that those encapsulated in sport culture may be shielded from experiences perceived as an encounter (Harrison et al., 2002).

In the third stage, immersion-emersion, individuals become immersed in Black culture. Harrison and colleagues (2002) characterize this stage as one in which the previous identity beliefs are deconstructed while a new Afrocentric identity is idealized and developed. In this stage a person creates a new conceptualization about the meaning of Blackness.

The maturation of one’s racial identity beliefs is characterized by a final stage, internalization. In this stage the individual comes to a realization about the strengths and weaknesses associated with Black and White cultures. The person’s identification with her racial identity is not created in opposition to what is considered White culture. Participation in sports or physical activities is not based on their significance or lack of significance in Black culture but rather on the motivation to remain fit or to participate in an enjoyable physical activity (Harrison et al., 2002).

Another frequently used framework for understanding racial identity is Sellers and colleagues’ (1998) Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity (MMRI). Unlike Cross’ stage model, the MMRI conceptualizes racial identity in terms of salience, centrality, regard, and ideological dimensions. The MMRI concedes, based on identity theory (see Stryker, 1968, 2007), that racial identity is one of many hierarchically ordered identities. Operationalized using the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity (MIBI), the MMRI measures racial centrality, public and private regard of race, four ideological dimensions of race (i.e., assimilationist, humanist, oppressed minority, and nationalist), and the qualitative interpretation of racial salience.

Athletic Identity

A growing strand of research in the domain of sport has focused on sport participants’ identity perceptions. One of the most obvious assertions that athletes are likely to make about themselves is that being an athlete has a lot to do with their self-concept. This said, how important is being an athlete to individuals? What effect does an athletic identity have on other identities as a part of one’s self-conceptualization? Brewer, Van Raalte, and Linder (1993) defined athletic identity as the degree to which an individual identifies with the role of being an athlete. Identification with the athlete role is explained by the strength and exclusivity of that identity (Good, Brewer, Petitpas, Van Raalte, & Mahar, 1993). As athletes begin to participate in sport at an early age, their athletic identity presumably strengthens over time. The links between athletic identity salience and other self-perceptions and behavior have been extensively investigated (Beamon & Bell, 2006; Brewer et al., 1993; Griffith & Johnson, 2002; Miller & Kerr, 2003; Mignano, Brewer, Winter, & Van Raalte, 2006; Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998). However, many of these studies have included limited measures beyond demographic information to account in any significant way for the diverse populations that participate in sport.

Race and Athletic Identity Convergence

Identity research interests have centered on the relationship between racial identity development and athletic identity. In a study on the relationships of athletic and racial identity with aggression in first-year student-athletes, Jackson and colleagues (2002) empirically tested the hypothesis that racial identity salience and racial discrimination perceptions were minimized by higher athletic identities. Their results showed that Black student-athletes with higher athletic identity were prone to saying that their self-image had little to do with their racial–ethnic group membership.

Brown and colleagues (2003) examined the degree of athletic identity and its association with perception of racial discrimination. They found that Black student-athletes, in contrast to their White counterparts, showed an inverse relationship between high athletic identity and perceptions that racial and ethnic discrimination was a problem in the United States. Brown and colleagues postulated that Black participants’ responses regarding racial and ethnic discrimination (i.e., its nonexistence) were potentially a product of their “pedestaled” (p. 177) status as athletes and an acculturation into sport that positioned their athletic identity as salient in relation to other identities.

In a recent study, Steinfeldt, Reed, and Steinfeldt (2010), using the MIBI, investigated the relationship between student-athletes’ racial and athletic identity and college adjustment and attachment perceptions. The findings from their sample of participants, consisting of Black student-athletes at both historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly White institutions (PWIs), showed that participants’ year in school, perceptions of public regard of Blacks, and a nationalist ideology were partial predictors of institutional attachment. This study adds to knowledge about the relationship between racial and athletic identity by showing the presence of varied racial ideologies in the sample and ways in which the racial identity and centrality of Black student-athletes can manifest in sport culture. Also interesting in this study was evidence that the age of Black student-athletes explained changes in aspects of racial identity such as the athletes’ perception of others’ view of them.


Read more from Race, Ethnicity, and Leisure, by Monika Stodolska, Kimberly Shinew,
Myron Floyd, and Gordon Walker.


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