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Does Society Place Too Much Importance on Sports?

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By John Amaechi, Personal development & organizational change expert & Senior Fellow in Emotional Literacy and Personal Development, NY Times best-selling author, and former professional athlete. On Twitter: @JohnAmaechi

I don't think there's a 'simple answer' or that this question is a simple dichotomy.  I find most simple answers and most basic debates can be boiled down to 'in my opinion/experience.'  That's not a problem, unless we are going to build policy on it, and in sport, much of the funding/priority we see through both public projects (school sport and such) and private sponsorship is based on these saccharine sweet, rhetorical stories about the "power of sport." 

It is at this point where the temptation to cite innumerable personal examples of the positive or negative impact of sport, but please hold those thoughts for a minute.

My understanding after being involved in amateur and professional sports as a player, administrator, in governance, and even as an owner as well as examining the research on numerous specific 'power of sport' interventions across the US and parts of Europe is that sport is indeed disproportionately powerful, a classic example of a privileged entity that over-promises and under-delivers, except for an elite few, and has done this for decades.  Sport is the ultimate venture capital pyramid - big, wide-ranging investment with a tiny proportion of people reaping any rewards at all and 'collateral damage' as a necessary by-product.  In the scheme of the current US election rhetoric, I know this is an automatically divisive idea, but I think the parallel holds some water.

'Sport' makes the kind of bold, unregulated promises of return on investment that Lehman's and Fannie May made in the late-1990s, and it is only a great, communal fondness for the products of sports, their poignance as a cultural meme, and the select positive memories of (and benefits for) a powerful few - not to mention some slickly produced events and well-manicured messaging around sport that keeps the realization of the artificial inflation of the importance of sport, from coming to the front of our minds.

It's a bubble that is more resilient than the housing market, but an alternate reality bubble nonetheless.  Sometimes it's easier to believe this suspension of reality that allows coaches, athletes, and administrators of sports who lack any real vision to be so powerful, is somehow 'the way it should be' rather than critically question the role of sport in society.  Sadly, the hero-worship of people without vision only serves to blind huge swathes of society, so I can't endorse it.

I have just returned from the SportAccord and International Olympic Committee (IOC) Conference in Québec, and despite the obviously necessary nuance around this question, there is something clearly askew with the priority - and in some cases primacy - of sport in society that is demonstrated by the deeply privileged, self-congratualtory, cognitive dissonance that described many of the most powerful people there.  People who rejected the idea of their own disproportionate privilege even as they sat drinking champagne with royalty on the basis of their position in sport alone.  They also reject the idea that putting a ball in a hole is indeed not that important in the scheme of most families, never mind society at large, but I did that for twenty years, and both my experience, and the pervasive research seem to back the idea that we all may be backing the wrong horse here.

Before you think otherwise, I do believe we can do amazing things with sport (or art or maths or dance - you get the idea...). I have a community center with 2700 kids a week going through its doors - but it works holistically, working with - and to produce - well-rounded young people, not young athletes.

In order for my center to work, I had to put away my precious ideas about some sports (basketball) being great at teaching 'life-lessons' and others not so much and realised that sport is an empty vessel (at best) and what we fill it with makes the difference (positive or otherwise.)

Sadly, much of sport and those who govern and 'teach' it are anti-intellectual, emotionally illiterate, blinkered by raw machismo, institutionally racist, homophobic, and misogynist, and as such, what they teach and the type of person produced at the end of that experience, is exactly the kind of person who lacerates his shooting hand on a fire hydrant case when he gets frustrated at a game, not to mention the kind of people whose lives disintegrate into relationship breakdown, under-employment, and alcoholism once their 'glory days' are over - especially when those glory days end in junior high.

There are some great people doing great things through sport, but frankly they are the magic element, and if they taught French or Zumba, the participants might be demographically different, but the impact would likely be similar.  My critique is NOT of these people using sport to do good, but rather the lack of public analysis of the appropriate role of sport and insisting that those who administer and coach do so in a way that produces the outcomes we are so boldly promised.

Much of the inordinate primacy of sport is based on a pervasive, anecdotal,  understanding (at least amongst those in power) that sport is always and necessarily a 'powerful teacher of valuable, positive tangential lessons' ('respect,' 'teamwork,' 'motivation,' etc.). Sadly, the science on these impacts is what good scientists call "equivocal at best."  I am tired of the rhetoric of those who believe that sport is, in of itself, somehow magic - that it can make fat children thin, sad children happy, indolent children active, and whole communities 'come together,' when the truth is, sport does exactly what we make it do, and for the most part we don't demand it does much more than occupy the time of our young people between 3 and 7pm; allow men to live vicariously through their children or indeed other men, and then entertain us once or twice a week and every four years so long as we make the pact to not ask too many questions or scrutinize it too hard.

I don't reject the potential value of sport to society; indeed, I embrace it, as I know so many do in the pockets of good practice across the world, but these few pockets do not mitigate the damage done by the unrestrained, unfocused, 'old-fashioned' sport delivered to unwitting participants in schools, community centers, and weekend leagues across the world.  There seems to be a sad and dangerous parallel between its unfettered and unquestioned role in society and those of other institutions that promise much to many and deliver little - sometimes nothing - to most, except those privileged few.

And in case you're wondering, there is a solution: we need to increase the abilities of those governing and coaching sport to deliver the tangential psycho-social impacts we have been promised for decades.

These men (and they are mostly men) don't need to become therapists, but they do need to be able to understand that their charges are people first and athletes second, they need to be able to respond appropriately to a crying boy ("Man up!" does not apply) and be emotionally in-touch enough to know the difference between banter and bullying and strong enough to moderate the former to prevent it becoming the latter, rather than joining in.

At the moment, we have some of the most interpersonally under-qualified and emotionally vacant people coaching some of our most vulnerable young people, and if these people think that teaching a child to kick, pass, or shoot is the sum of their job, then we - and they - are screwed.

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