The Importance of Sport in Society

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Sport in Society


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


WINNING in a sporting event is not a matter of life or death--it is much more important than that.' This sporting cliche sums up an attitude towards sport that is increasingly common around the world. The object of this article is to examine how sport has become such a major factor in everyday life.

Just over a century ago the American philosopher William James called for the creation of a 'moral equivalent of war': the search for something--other than war--that would enhance a person's self-discipline, hardiness and self-sacrifice. I think that sport now performs that role. This claim is examined in the context of politics, religion and racism.

It may seem odd for such a 'serious' journal as this one to give attention to sport. Sport is often seen as a trivial aspect of life by academics. George Gmelch, professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco, has recently recalled how fellow academics have expressed surprise at his choice of research: 'The elitist view, that sport is of the body and not the mind, and therefore not intellectual or refined enough to merit such attention, still holds in some quarters ... Perhaps they forget how pervasive sport has become in Western societies--sports coverage in North American newspapers surpasses that of the economy, politics or any other single topic--or that sport occupies a major portion of our television programming (with seven US cable channels dedicated to sports), or that many Americans are now more devoted to their sports than their religion'. (1)

Unlike Gmelch, who was a baseball player in his younger days, I have no sporting interests at all and have not played sport (and even that was under duress) since leaving school almost half a century ago. But it is necessary to recognize, for good or ill, that sport is a major factor in modern life.

Sport as the 'Moral Equivalent of War'

In 1906 William James, in his essay The Moral Equivalent of War, explores the problem of how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat. (2) The standard solution for that problem was the creation of a militia both to defend the country and to create a national sense of unity, not least among unruly young men. But a century ago, the traditional US militia system had broken down and James felt that Americans needed a way of life that was so exciting that they would no longer turn to violence out of emptiness and boredom.

James recommended a new form of national service for males, for example, to tame the environment. Some progress has been made on his ideas, such as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and later Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). But the American libertarian spirit rebels against enforced national service (and even the so-called War on Terror is unlikely to result in military conscription being reintroduced).

Therefore how are we today to civilize young males without the discipline of sergeant majors? I suggest that sport meets James' ideals--and it is voluntary. Sport involves young--and not so young--people and gives a sense of national unity. Sporting activities are the only major sphere--outside war--where acts of aggression are encouraged. They arc a good way to channel youthful high spirits and energy into constructive causes.

Politics

In 2006 the then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wondered about 'if only world politics could be as well organized as the World Cup Games'. (3) Both activities were universal: the UN had then 191 members, while football's governing body FIFA had 207. Soccer had a degree of openness and transparency missing from international politics. Citizens loved talking about soccer, while he had great difficulty getting much media attention for issues like foreign aid. National governments were making migration difficult--but soccer teams had players drawn from the best across the world.

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