More Than Just a Game Part I: Sport as a Protector of Social Order and Platform for Social Activism

Recent protest by NFL players and teams shows how athletes, coaches, and administrators can use athletics to challenge social norms and the status quo. Sport can likewise function to reinforce existing social dynamics and maintain social order. As youth coaches, intersections between sport and broad, complex social issues (e.g., elite athlete activism) may seem less relevant to our practice. On the contrary, these topics are central to our mission to help athletes develop as players and people. Moreover, professional athletes are sport exemplars that our youth revere and emulate. To understand the flurry of protests, this post considers the relationship between sport and social order/disorder in two parts. Part I offers a history on the opposing roles of sport in the United States. Part II examines the conversation surrounding NFL athlete activism. To begin, a history of youth organized sport serves as an example of sport as a training ground for civic/social order.

Organized youth sport began in reaction to mass urbanization, industrialization, and immigration following the Civil War (Wiggins, 2013). To create a safe social space for young boys, Muscular Christians organized athletic programs (e.g., the YMCA) to discipline/socialize children amidst the perceived social instability. Institutional reforms also restructured the cityscape and school day (McElroy, 2008). From 1906 to 1917, the Playground Association of America built over 450 playgrounds to ostensibly alleviate the dangers among ethnically diverse youth exposed to the indecency of city life (Yep, 2009). Playground supporters believed that team play encouraged a unified national spirit—that team sports could assimilate immigrant youth. As playgrounds changed the cityscape, educators similarly viewed sport as a form of citizenship training—a belief that was notably salient with inception of the Cold War (McCloy, 1930). Initiatives such as the President’s Council for Youth Fitness sought to ensure military preparedness, redefining physical fitness as a civic responsibility in order to safeguard political order at home and abroad. This brief history showcases how public officials and educators have tied a vocabulary of social order/disorder and civic responsibility to sport. Despite popular conceptions of athletics as separate from politics, sport regards more than just the games we play. Sport is deeply political—a reality that is central to the current displays of athlete activism.

Social issues (e.g., race, class, and gender) and norms pervade sport. While physical ability may allow athletes to transcend social barriers, the belief that sport is a “level playing field” on which athletes are solely judged by their athletic merit discounts the broader social scrutiny and dynamics that can impact players and society. Take, for example, the well-known “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Female player Billie Jean beat male player Bobby Riggs in a match that defied norms designating females as physically inferior to males. While the ball bounced indifferent to gender, the players and crowd certainly did not view this match as just another game of tennis. This historic match (and current protests) follow from a rich historical tradition of athlete activism on a spectrum of social justice issues. From Joe Louis’ challenge of racism at home and fascism abroad in the boxing ring (Rundstedtler, 2010) to Muhammad Ali’s requested deferment from the Vietnam draft (Wiggins, 2010), stories of athletes’ transcendence of social norms abound. (See David Wiggins’ Sport in America: From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization for fascinating histories of athlete activism).

Social issues and injustices intersect with sport more than we may realize. History shows the role that sport has as a protector of social order and platform for social activism. Historical context offers an awareness of how embedded concepts of social order/disorder and civic responsibility are in sport. These concepts are central to the current discourse on athlete protests during the National Anthem. Familiarity with the long-standing link between sport and social order/disorder can help coaches unpack the debate and guide our practice. How youth sport coaches can address these issues is the focus of Part II, so check back on Friday!

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