“Remember the Titans:" Can Football Reduce Racism?

Can team sports reduce prejudice? Football season can be more than just football

Posted Nov 02, 2012

There are a lot of movies about racism, and there are a bazillion movies about sports. There are even several that combine both topics, but by far my favorite of these combo-packs is the classic movie “Remember the Titans.” Based on a true story, we see a high school football team forced to deal with the racial integration of a Black school with a White school in 1971 Virginia. Each team is led by a dynamic and likeable coach, played in the movie by Denzel Washington (Coach Boone) and Will Patton (Coach Yoast). While I don’t think the writer/director of this really excellent film read a bunch of psychology theory on prejudice before crafting the screenplay, the film almost eerily follows the steps put forth by classic studies on how to get two groups of people to overcome stereotypes and prejudice.

What Doesn’t Work: The Contact Hypothesis

When psychologists were first trying to figure out how to reduce prejudice between two groups, the most popular idea was called the Contact Hypothesis (originated by a guy named Williams in 1947). The idea is that the reason we don’t like other groups (other races, religions, sexual orientations, or whatever) is because we simply don’t spend a lot of time with people who are different. So, all we need to do is hang out with those people more, and poof! Our prejudices will go away. So, “contact” is the key. While this sounds pretty great, it’s unfortunately not reality. It turns out that simply hanging around people who are different MIGHT lead to friendships and overcoming obstacles – but more often, it backfires. We end up just noticing behaviors that confirm our stereotypes, we end up in terrible arguments, and we often just hate each other even more.

In “Remember the Titans,” this unfortunate tendency is displayed early on as the two teams are forced to integrate. They become competitive for positions on the new team, they refuse to acknowledge each other’s perspective, and they simply become more ingrained in their prior beliefs. So the Contact Hypothesis has a huge caveat, which is that what matters is the TYPE of contact between groups. This is where we can learn from both psychological theory and from the real-life football team. How did they eventually overcome their racism and work together to win the state championship?

Step 1 in Reducing Racism: Equal Status

The psychologist who first really offered an update to the Contact Hypothesis was Gordon Allport, who proposed four criteria for successful contact and reduction of prejudice between two disparate groups. The first criterion is that the group members must have equal status; one group can’t have more power, more members, more money, or more anything else than the other group.

We see this equality in the Titans, when head Coach Boone makes it clear that the best players will get the starting positions, regardless of their race. Each individual must work hard to earn his place, and the amount of effort required is equal, no matter what color his skin might be. Only with this equal status can any resentment be erased from either side.

Step 2: Common Goals

Allport’s next criterion for successful intergroup contact was that the group should have a common, or superordinate, goal. The goal must be difficult enough that neither sub-group could achieve it alone, but also achievable (not just a pipe dream that will inevitably lead to disappointment). This example is obvious when the Titans must work together to win each football game and, even more importantly, grow as a team to achieve the championship. We see specific examples of how the team members must work together as the offense and defense point out weaknesses in players of the other race; what’s important in this process is that each “side” of the divide had reciprocal strengths and weaknesses, again bringing about a sense of equality.

One important part of the “common goal” ideology is that the two original groups (here, the Black students and White students) must bond together to form a new, mutual group membership. “Us” versus “Them” must become “We.” This new, integrated group becomes easier to form when there’s a common enemy; in our example, it’s the other football teams from other schools.

Step 3: See Individuals, Not Just Group Members

One of the more esoteric criteria that Allport pointed out is that for stereotypes to really be eliminated, each group must see members of the opposite group as separate individuals and not simply as a representative of the entire group. If an alien from Planet X appears and I get to know him as Blark the Alien, that’s great. But, if Blark really loves hotdogs, even if we’re friends, I still might just assume that all people from Planet X equally love hotdogs. Again, even if this is a relatively positive or even benign belief, I’m still assuming something about EVERY citizen of Planet X. That’s still a stereotype. To overcome my stereotypes, I have to realize that Blark is an individual being who might not have the same preferences as everyone else from Planet X.

This particular aspect of the theory is highlighted at the beginning of the football training camp when Coach Boone requires each Black student to meet with each White student, individually, and both students must learn personal details about his counterpart. By learning to see the individual differences among members of the outgroup, they are forced to recognize that “those people” (for both races) are not all the same. Thus, stereotypes about “those people” become meaningless.

Step 4: Supportive Authority

Allport’s final criterion for ending intergroup hostility was that any authorities present must be supportive of change and integration. For these young men, their role models are their parents and coaches. If they see bad examples, they will follow suit. This hugely important step in the process is seen in “Remember the Titans” as the parents from the community see their children befriending another race, and they are forced to face their own prejudices.

Even more importantly to the football players, however, is the interaction between Coach Boone and Coach Yoast. Just like the players, the two coaches are competitive, suspicious, and stubborn. However, due to Steps 1-3 outlined above, they too learn to see the good in each other and eventually become friends.

Admittedly, racial harmony is not as easy as a two hour Disney movie. “Remember the Titans” simplifies thousands, if not millions, of years of intergroup hostility from when humans were first fighting over space in a cave. But it is based on a true story. Thousands of people have truly gone through such transformative experiences and learned to open their hearts to people who might appear different on the outside, but share the same dreams and spirit on the inside. And can’t we make the end of “Titans” a goal for ourselves? Team sports can, sometimes, lead to more victories than just the ones on the field.

Copyright Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.