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Are There Hidden Virtues to Bowling Alone?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Once freed of the bonds of community, it’s possible some amateur bowlers took pains to improve their games.

The recent death of the great bowler Don Carter prompted some serious thinking about the sport over which he ruled in the 1950s, a sport which has been making something of a comeback in recent years. There are a lot of things to like about bowling: the jazzy shoes, the retro shirts, memories of the iconic announcer “Whispering” Joe Wilson (and, okay, even of Chris Schenkel), and the fact that real people used to set the pins—actually, they still do in about ten bowling alleys in the United States, including Southport Lanes, near where I grew up in Chicago. Not to mention the miracle of automatic scoring, surely one of the greatest developments of the 1970s! As I said, there is a lot to like about bowling, or at least there was until 1995, when Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam came along and spoiled everything with his “Bowling Alone” article, rendering the sport into yet another metaphor about America’s decline.

In that well-known piece in the Journal of Democracy and in a 2000 book by the same name, Putnam suggested that declining participation in U.S. bowling leagues in the late 20th century was illustrative of a broader decline in traditional social relations in America, and, withal, in social capital, i.e., the intricate webs of relationships that he and others view as important to community cohesion and civic health. To be sure, Putnam granted the fact that bowling participation had increased in the aggregate over recent decades, but because league participation purportedly went down—this fact itself has been debated—social trust and community reciprocity were somehow being lost. And when you lose these things, the enemy—individualism—wins.

Improvements in bowling techniques and technology explain part of the scoring surge.

Whatever one thinks of communitarianism (I, for one, am reflexively anti-communitarian), Putnam might have—indeed, should have—chosen a metaphor other than bowling. Why? Because during the same period that participation in bowling leagues was said to be declining—the 1980s and 1990s—amateur bowling scores in the United States were soaring.

Improvements in bowling techniques and technology explain part of the scoring surge. Regarding the latter: The shift from rubber to polyester (plastic) to urethane balls facilitated greater surface traction and friction; increasingly sophisticated lane-oiling patterns helped to enhance ball control and the angle of entry of balls into the pocket; and coated pins increased their “action” once struck. And, as in other sports, participants in bowling have been getting bigger, stronger, and more athletic, and, all things being equal, such attributes likely have had some effect on rising scores as well.

But another factor may have played a role as well, one with implications for Putnam’s thesis. It just may be that with the decline in bowling-league participation (presuming such a decline occurred), bowlers who were serious about bowling qua bowling rather than about bowling as a casual adjunct to drinking, cutting up, and deepening their “webs of relationships” every Tuesday or Wednesday night may have spent more of their time at the lanes actually practicing—with improved average scores the result.

George Will’s point was that most Americans didn’t work at their crafts in the same rigorous manner as ball players such as Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn.

Twenty-five years ago, the historian Paul Kennedy coined a phrase to describe historical situations wherein the strategic commitments of great powers led to increases in military expenditures sufficiently large as to ultimately create “imperial overstretch” and the eventual decline of the great power in question. A few years later, the columnist George Will, playing off Kennedy’s coinage, came up with another description, arguing that, at least in the case of America, the real problem, c. 1990, wasn’t Kennedy’s imperial overstretch, but individual understretch, “a tendency of Americans to demand too little of themselves.” Will’s point, made in his book on sport, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, was that most Americans didn’t work at their crafts in the same rigorous manner as ball players such as Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn.

I’m not arguing here that once bowling-leagues began to fade away amateurs started pursuing their hobby, bowling, with the zeal of Gwynn. Perhaps, though, once freed of the bonds –one meaning of which is “shackles”—of community, they took at least some pains to stretch themselves sufficiently to improve their games. Mirabile dictu, as Don Carter, the noblest bowler of them all, might say.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

FURTHER READING: Coclanis also writes “Pride and Prejudice: Contrarian Speculation on Wall Street’s Future.” Nick Schulz reveals “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Lee Harris examines “Tim Tebow and the Atheist’s Dilemma.” Chad Hill contributes “It’s March Math-ness!” Christina Hoff Sommers says “Take Back the Sports Page.” David Archer discusses “Sports and the Market.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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