Updated: Nov 10, 2020
What is the role of Sports in our society?
Prior to Without Exception, I started a company called RouteRun. Since its launch, I had touted RouteRun as a resource for coaches and athletes alike to form and build leadership skills. I believe our services translate to success on the field of play. And, given that as a society we define success in terms of results, this felt like an apt purpose and product offering. However, as a pandemic, racial unrest, and economic downturn continue to shape 2020, this mission feels too narrow - too small.
By ultimately valuing winning, our mission takes the perspective that the role of sports is confined to the field-of-play and used as an escape for the many fans in the stands. Of course, research shows that the impact of sports as a cultural and social institution extends beyond wins and losses. And, while I cannot deny that sports can offer a brief escape from the sometimes daily drudge of life, now is not the time for escapism. To all the administrators, coaches, and players out there - Now is the time to harness the cultural and social relevance of sports at all levels as a platform to protest systemic racism, social injustice, and widespread inequity in areas such as healthcare, education, and civic engagement.
To all the administrators, coaches, and players out there - Now is the time to harness the cultural and social relevance of sports at all levels as a platform to protest systemic racism, social injustice, and widespread inequity in areas such as healthcare, education, and civic engagement.
Like many of us, 2020 has knocked me back on my heels in many ways. Admittedly, I started the year through the ‘sports as an escape’ lens. I have come to realize, however, that two sports mindsets exist - sports and Sports. Getting players back on the field playing sports is important and, in part, grants us a sense of normalcy during this challenging year. The value of Sports, however, is not only in demonstrating athletic prowess and winning.
Sports are one of many social pillars we rely on to promote community pride, express the value of teamwork, and yes - spark relevant dialogue to bring awareness to important issues.
To that end, I offer two examples of the utilization of sports as a traditional form of escape versus sports as a platform for knowledge, education, and social awareness. First, let’s examine the National Football League. Since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and social injustice, the NFL has remained largely silent. Kaepnerick was cut by the 49ers that same year, and has remained unsigned to this day while the NFL has continued to deny any wrongdoing. Only in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and now more recently with the incident involving Jacob Blake has the NFL admitted the wrongful treatment of Kaepernick and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet, as we veer toward the start of another football season, only the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken actionable steps to undue systemic inequity. On August 18th the Steelers announced a plan in conjunction with several other NBA teams to make their home venues available as voting “super centers” in the fall, as election authorities look for large spaces to use for safe in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. To date, no other NFL team has joined this pledge. Instead, NFL leaders like Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones offer vague promises to address anthem ‘issues’ with “grace”. Such empty rhetoric reveals a small, restricted understanding of the role of sports in our society. As I write this article, training camps for the upcoming season are in full swing, with athletes, coaches, and owners collectively complicit in ignoring the social unrest taking place around us.
Our second example tells a different tale. NBA players have been empowered to address any injustice, but especially racial injustice. From “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to Donald Sterling’s banishment to steps taken to address racially motivated fan misbehavior, the NBA hasn’t been hesitant to use its collective voice. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the son of a Chicago police officer, called George Floyd’s death a “murder.” He recounted being called more racial slurs than he can remember. Perhaps most importantly, he said inaction amounts to complicity.
A few months ago, I recall saying to a friend that there are things bigger than sports right now. Looking back, what I meant to say is that Sports must be more than just playing games. Sports as a platform is a catalyst for change and progress and has no place being small or confined to wins and losses. I once took a course in high school titled Sports and Society. The instructor knew then what I am learning now - Sports are intertwined with society and therefore carries a responsibility to come to terms with its role in either perpetuating or exterminating injustice, racism, and inequity.