People like sports. Whether you play them yourself, or watch your favorite team or athlete, there is probably some sports in your life.
Certainly, there is no denying the popularity. The Super Bowl is consistently one of the highest rated television moments each year. Professional sports are billion dollar enterprises. You may have a jersey or a cap in your closet.
However, other than simple popularity, where do they fit in our society? Is it simple entertainment? Is the identity of a city or a community defined by professional athletes playing a game?
In addition, what sort of responsibility do athletes have to a community? Should they get involved in political issues, or should they simply play the game they are paid for?
Some communities believe that a professional sports franchise is an economic engine, producing jobs and bringing fans with disposable income to a downtown area. Others might describe a team as a financial burden, often extracting tax breaks from a city or county and keeping the majority of income generated for itself. Can both be true?
Sports are important to fans around the world. Some of the most powerful multi-national organizations are sports teams or leagues, and individual athletes are are some of the most recognizable people on the planet.
Ultimately, what is it that these teams provide to us? What role do sports play in our society?
Related questions: What is your favorite sport? Why is it better to watch a sporting event live rather than recorded? Why do people like games? What makes a community?
3 thoughts on “What Role Do Sports Play In Our Society?”
I love fitness, so in some sense I love sports … although mostly in the individual (not societal) sense. Running is meditative to me. In a typical week, I run a few times, but I aspire for five or six times for both the physical and mental health benefits it provides. I used to be a marathoner; however, my feet and legs are injury-prone. Also, for several years, I was a yogi — the intense, hot yoga type. Oh my, the contortions I could twist my body into! But then studios stopped offering hours that would work for me, then we got a puppy with separation anxiety, and then COVID-19 hit. So I have had to give up (personally) competitive sports I used to be involved in.
Now, as to professional sports — the sports you watch, but don’t actively engage in. I have to say I’ve soured on them for the most part. To begin, watching baseball bores me. And then there’s football and hockey, which are violent in the immediate sense and debilitating in the long-term — broken bodies; broken brains.
I feel guilty when I watch it. If there were some sport I watched regularly, football would be it.
Now, as to the role that sports play in society, I quite honestly don’t get it. First, I don’t understand the allegiances people have for “their home team.” It’s like a form of patriotism that says my team is the best. In a political sense, I don’t understand how nationalism currently plays out. Perhaps we’re not the best; perhaps we’re unique. And we could love that uniqueness. So, in the sports sense, if there were a way to celebrate your team’s uniqueness, maybe I’d like it more.
But that would seem to get rid of the competitive nature, which for some reason makes some people think athletes are worth multi-million dollar contracts. No one — no one — is worth what we pay our entertainers. Not athletes, not movie stars, not musicians, not pundits — nobody.
But perhaps there is something to athleticism that is worth celebrating, and it is about uniqueness. To watch the fastest runners and swimmers, the most agile gymnasts, dancers, and ice skaters, the most perfecting snowboarders or archers — it’s beautiful and exhilarating to watch bodies pushed to their limits to see what is possible. So, I’d say that watching many Olympic sports is exciting to me. And it is a societal celebration, sometimes in ways that even take many viewers away from the patriotic garbage and simply loves to watch the French team excel in one sport, the Kenyan in another, and the American in yet another — all to see what bodies are capable of.
One last positive: this past week in sports was something to witness. Competitors banding together to protest injustice and realizing that it was only the first step. Multi-million dollar athletes took a knee, refused to play, and demanded more of their viewers, bosses, sponsors, and more. Because of them, some arenas will turn into polling places. Amazing!
I see three significant roles sports play in our society. There are certainly more, but I’ll focus on just three:
1) They provide narrative.
The exploits of the local sports team provide all the same things you get from the best performance art: drama, heroics, heartbreak, redemption, interesting characters, villains, etc.
2) They are a great equalizer.
What happened in the game last night is a great conversation topic that can interest and engage just about anybody, regardless of skin color, gender, political party, religious affiliation, or class.
3) They are a great unifier.
I live in the Boston metro area, and after the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Boston Red Sox provided a much-needed air of stability, and even served as a rallying point for a shocked populace. It’s one of the reasons that there has been such a push to have sports return during the pandemic.
This question didn’t get my attention until a few days ago. It’s one I’ve thought about a lot and may have actually submitted the question to this blog myself. My hunch is that sports plays too big a role and distracts people from more important things – like hunger, unemployment, homelessness, inequality of opportunity, war and peace, etc.
I understand that sports has a good side. Lee mentions some of the good things. I’m a life-long golfer, and am still enjoying it well into my 70’s. But for me it’s a balancing act and I have a hard time justifying the time and money I spend on a game/entertaining myself when I think about all sick and starving people in the world. I guess in the final analysis, we can do both. We can reach out to others and we can still enjoy sports. It’s kind of like spending money on the exploration of space when we have so many needs on earth. I believe we can do both. The question is, do we have our priorities straight? Which comes first? What would Jesus do?