One of the greatest, and most memorable, sports-related quotes comes from Nelson Mandela.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” said Mandela. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Sport has helped overcome injustice, intolerance and stereotypes. A couple of well-known examples are Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey integrating baseball, and a small group of women within the National Organization of Women (NOW) spurring the development of Title IX, an American civil rights law that ensures equal federal funding for men and women.
Robinson’s and Rickey’s success in integrating baseball helped others in their fight for racial justice and paved the way for the civil rights movement. Title IX was a catalyst for gender equity in a variety of areas, including corporate executive suites and collegiate sports.
Still, sport has the potential to do a lot more.
Sport can be beautiful – and powerful – when win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs mentalities are absent. And it can be very ugly when they’re present.
To fully reach sport’s potential as a positive change agent, we need sports leaders and policy-makers who fully incorporate social, cultural and environmental considerations – not just economic considerations – in their decision-making. We need sports policies that put people, the planet, and what’s best for the games themselves, on the same level as winning and making money.
Striving to win isn’t the problem. Striving to win at all costs is the problem. Likewise, striving to make a profit in the business of sport isn’t the problem. Striving to make a profit at all costs is the problem.
It’s important that the individuals and organizations that have the power to shape sports policy in our country act in a socially responsible way. To that end, checks and balances are needed. That’s where all of us who love sports come in.
If we truly care about sports, and its potential to change the world for the better, we all need to be sports reformers and sports activists in our own way – even if that means simply pushing for a social and/or economic justice-based policy change at the local school board or minor sports group meeting.
Sport is an important aspect of our society. As author and public policy consultant Varda Burstyn said, “The rituals of sport engage more people in a shared experience than any other institution or cultural activity today.”
As fans, athletes, coaches, game officials, administrators, owners and anyone else with a stake in sports, we owe it to ourselves, and our children, to become informed citizens and sports activists who try to make the world a better place through sports.
We also owe it to all the sports activists and reformers who’ve come before us, those who have made sports and society more fair, just and ethical.
League of Fans was founded with the mission of fighting for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Our fight to that end will continue in 2020.
Here’s hoping you will join us. Because when we change sports for the better, we also change the world for the better.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.