For more than a year, Kim Terrell-Kearney pitched athletic directors on the merits of women’s college bowling.
In convention halls and hotel ballrooms between 2002 and 2003, Terrell-Kearney, the collegiate coordinator for the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), presented her best arguments. Teams were inexpensive. They could help meet Title IX requirements. Barriers to success were low if you go in on the ground floor. With the right coach and some strategic recruiting, any program, from an NCAA Division I state flagship to a private Division III commuter, can contend for a national championship.
Per NCAA bylaws, a sport’s viability had to be proved by having at least 40 schools register. “We certainly initially didn’t get the interest we were hoping or expecting when we first started the process,” Terrell-Kearney said. Yet her delivery, as it had inside the lanes, remained calm.
Growing up the youngest of four sisters, Terrell-Kearney would tag along with her siblings to local bowling centers across the San Francisco Bay Area. She went on to become a two-time All-American at San Jose State University, after which she embarked on an august career: U.S. representative to the 1988 Olympics (when bowling was an exhibition event), three-time major tournament winner and inductee into the USBC Hall of Fame in 2010.
Her shot was smooth and steadfast. Some bowlers place a high number of revolutions on the ball, while others put few. Terrell-Kearney was a mid-rev thrower who got steady, repeatable results. The ball would leisurely drift wide, almost scrape the edge of the gutter then careen back to collapse the pocket (the front right pins) as if the whole apparatus were magnetized.
Despite early snags, eight athletic conferences eventually committed to women’s bowling, surpassing the 40-school threshold. Young women could now attend college on bowling scholarships. Burgeoning budgets would mean more travel, bigger tournaments, greater exposure.
Securing these conferences meant a lot to Terrell-Kearney. That three of the early adopters — the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association — were historically black conferences meant something particularly special.
Terrell-Kearney spent her career as one of the only black bowlers on the professional tour. “I was used to being the only one in the bowling center or going to these small towns where I didn’t see another black person the entire time,” she said from the campus of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where she now is the head coach of the women’s team.
She once saw the NCAA as a pipeline to diversify the pro ranks.
“I remember my excitement,” she said. “I always thought there was going to be a benefit, a bonus, from these colleges getting bowling.”
The union between historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and NCAA women’s bowling has been fruitful. Fewer than 10 percent of all athletic programs across Divisions I, II and III represent HBCUs, yet the schools make up 40 percent of women’s collegiate bowling. In 2007, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore claimed the national championship out of the MEAC, a first for a women’s team from a historically black institution in any sport. Eastern Shore repeated its title four years later.
And after building up Delaware State University’s fledgling bowling program, Terrell-Kearney now consistently guides the N.C. A&T Aggies to a top-10 national ranking. She made an immediate impact there after being hired in 2016. In her first season, she led the Aggies to the MEAC Southern Division title and an appearance in the league championship game against Maryland Eastern Shore.
Yet, 15 years since NCAA women’s bowling got off the ground with indispensable HBCU support, black representation in professional bowling remains scant. This year, only one full-time black bowler competes on the Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) tour.
“I was very encouraged back then,” Terrell-Kearney said. “But it has been a while, and the numbers on tour haven’t changed. For whatever reason, they haven’t.”
The Education Amendments of 1972 did not immediately force colleges and universities to rethink gender equality in athletics. Instead, the pressure introduced by Title IX grew gradually over subsequent decades, court decisions and advocacy efforts. By the early 2000s, universities prioritized Title IX compliance: to demonstrate a history and continuing practice of program expansion for the underrepresented sex. Especially for schools with (inevitably) large football rosters, finding new opportunities for female athletes was paramount.
To help schools meet their Title IX requirements, the NCAA designated a rotating cast of emerging women’s sports to promote: beach volleyball, water polo, ice hockey and bowling.
Bowling’s main advantage over its competitors was simple, if a bit cynical. “To be honest, it was the cost of bowling that was a huge enticing factor,” said Michael Boykins, head coach of the Jackson State University women’s bowling team.
In 2017, the operating expenses for bowling at JSU, a historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi, were $31,475, lower than any other team on campus. The median annual cost of a Division I bowling program is $50,000. Beach volleyball costs $323,000. Water polo is $869,000 and ice hockey north of $2 million a year. “The expenditures, facilities, balls, it’s all minimal,” Boykins said.
HBCUs tend to be smaller and receive less funding than other public four-year institutions. Budget shortfalls trickle down to athletics. The athletic budgets at HBCUs traditionally fall on the lower half of the 347 Division I programs. In 2017, SWAC schools allocated an average of $8.7 million toward their sports teams, while the Southeast Conference, which encompasses a similar region, spent close to $124 million on average.
Others point to culture, as much as costs, as a catalyst for the connection between HBCUs and bowling.
“Some sports, we as black people just aren’t that familiar with,” said Keith Bridgeforth, collegiate program director for The National Bowling Association (TNBA). “There’s no real exposure. I wasn’t really exposed to swimming. My parents didn’t swim. There are sports far, far more remote to black folks than bowling.”
Take water polo, for example. Swimming’s a prerequisite for the sport: The USA Swimming Foundation found 64 percent of black children in the United States had “no or low swimming ability,” compared with 40 percent of white children. Howard University in Washington, D.C., is the only HBCU with an active scholarship swim team.
One more factor drew HBCUs to women’s bowling. Although today’s professional tour indicates a broken link, women’s bowling and black communities have a rich, interwoven history.
He’s the only active black bowler to have won a major pro tournament
Before the 1950s, black Americans were denied access to mainstream organized bowling. The prominent gatekeepers of the era, the American Bowling Congress and the Women’s International Bowling Congress, were strictly segregated. “Typically, blacks employed in most of the country’s alleys were pinsetters, janitors and custodians,” writes Summer Cherland in Separate Games: African American Sport Behind the Walls of Segregation. “So many of these after-hour bowlers spent their days cleaning and their nights bowling with their friend on those very same lanes.”
In 1939, a group of bowlers in Cleveland started the sport’s first racially inclusive association, the National Negro Bowling Association. The NNBA, in another first, allowed women to play alongside men, a policy enacted at the insistence of founding member Viola Crosswhite.
Rebranded The National Bowling Association (TNBA), the organization marshaled the game’s growth through the 20th century by emphasizing black leadership and uninhibited access to lanes.
In 1951, the American Bowling Congress (now the United States Bowling Congress) was integrated, and TNBA’s growth persisted, with women holding key roles. In the 1960s, Kay Brisson was appointed TNBA’s director of junior bowling. In 1964, TNBA member Louise Fulton became the first black woman to win a professional tournament.
By the time Terrell-Kearney was shopping women’s collegiate bowling to athletic directors, TNBA was the longest-active black-led sports association in America, with women holding significant leadership positions and a sizable portion of the overall membership.
Boykins, Bridgeforth and Terrell-Kearney point to bowling’s lack of appeal among young people.
“At the youth level, how to get people into the game has been an age-old question,” Boykins said. He believes the NCAA could do more to increase awareness of the scholarship opportunities that the game provides to black girls.
Bridgeforth sees youth participation hampered by geography and real estate. In his hometown of Indianapolis, several bowling alleys in urban areas with high black populations have closed, supplanted by new developments. The four 80-lane Royal Pin mega-alleys dot the outskirts of the city limits near highway exits and the mainly white suburbs. “If you don’t have transportation, they’re hard to get to,” Bridgeforth said.
Another issue, one all three brought up, is the role model gap. “I think just not seeing people like you out there is a factor,” Terrell-Kearney said. Weekend tournaments with mostly white contestants are now televised on Fox Sports. College matches, often more diverse, generally are not. “If you don’t see people that look like you,” Terrell-Kearney added, “it doesn’t feel like it’s a realistic want or dream.”
Is bowling a nonblack sport? “Honestly, I hear the question from myself sometimes,” said Gazmine Mason, the lone black bowler on today’s PWBA tour. “It just depends when you’re asking me. You go to tournaments and you can feel the fact you are the only one.”
Mason, 23, is a month into her rookie season and two years removed from the University of Nebraska, where she graduated as a three-time All-American. At 5 feet, 3 inches, Mason throws a 15-pound ball that she wields with the ease of someone tossing a water balloon. Her ball glides down the center of the oily wooden planks before straying out to the right as it enters the bottom half of the lane. Running out of room, the ball veers back to clobber the pocket, and the pins succumb. Her sharp hooking trajectory is most similar, she believes, to the typical men’s style. “I never really worked on my release,” Mason said. “I was told that was a gift.”
Mason, whose friends call her “GG,” started bowling at age 10 when a family friend and youth coach in Providence, Rhode Island, named Marty Jones told her father about the NCAA’s new bowling scholarships.
Early on, Mason struggled. After one tournament, she was awarded a “Last Place Champ” trophy. “All my friends were roasting me. I think that’s what really started to motivate me to get better and better,” she said. Today, the trophy features prominently in her display case, alongside trophies and gold medals for national championships.
Most of her Providence youth program was black, but as Mason progressed through elite youth bowling, she noticed a demographic shift. “Going to tournaments in different states, that’s when I first noticed there weren’t many who looked like me.”
Rhode Island did not have high school bowling, so Jones mailed tapes of Mason at junior tournaments to grab the attention of top-flight programs. The bluest of the blue bloods in women’s college bowling is the University of Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won the first two national titles and five out of the total 16. Mason accepted a partial scholarship her freshman year, which by her senior year had turned into a full ride.
Four national championship appearances, one title and the 2016 World Bowling Youth Championships gold medal solidified Mason’s status as one of the strongest bowlers to roll through Lincoln.
She was, for all four years, the team’s only black bowler. “I expected it, but it’s still frustrating.”
During the winter of her senior year, Mason reviewed the Team USA rosters. “I saw no color at the adult or junior level,” she said. This was nothing novel to Mason, but something about seeing the lack of black representation at the national stage provoked her into action.
Within a month, she had formed Black Girls Can Bowl 2 as a network for players to discuss, support and celebrate their experiences as black female bowlers. “I went pretty much my whole four years at Nebraska seeing opposing teams with other black bowlers but never breaking that barrier to go talk with them,” Mason said. “This organization is one big icebreaker.”
The way Black Girls Can Bowl 2 nurtures a nationwide community echoes the historical efforts of TNBA, although Black Girls Can Bowl 2 uses many more hashtags. On Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, young bowlers pose questions as they eye collegiate bowling. What can I expect playing in college? How do I handle being the only black girl on a team? “I have a national championship, but I’m going through some of the same things. They are surprised to hear that,” Mason said.
This spring, Mason accepted an invitation to meet students at the LeBron James-funded I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. In March, she was also the keynote speaker at the inaugural TNBA/HBCU Invitational Collegiate Tournament, which Boykin started to increase the exposure that black bowlers receive. “I just feel like, when people do anything, they like to see someone who resembles the same whatever as them,” Mason said. “It’s about saying we have a place in this sport. We used to be the janitors. We used to set up the pins. Then we started our own leagues.”
On a visit to the national team training center in Arlington, Texas, Mason met Terrell-Kearney. They were familiar with each other’s work, and the two quickly became mentor and mentee. Today Mason calls Terrell-Kearney “Coach Kim,” and Terrell-Kearney calls Mason by her nickname.
“GG has just really embraced, whether it’s the small schools or the MEAC and SWAC, making black girls feel like there’s a place for them,” Terrell-Kearney said. “I hope my career represents that, and I hope that she can take the reins.”
The two women share demographics, a passion and the belief that the overlap between the two will one day swell. “In my heart, I think you’ll see more diversity. I don’t think it will happen in a year or two, but it will happen,” Mason said.
“This has been a question that’s been asked of me all my adult life,” Terrell-Kearney said. “Can the pro level be diversified? I try to just continue to be a face for kids to see, whether it’s coaching or as an athlete, and that they realize it’s a possibility. I don’t know what else we can do.”