Examining the Purpose of Sport and Why it Matters

11/15/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2017

On any given day, athletes put on their uniforms and step out on a field of play. These athletes may be elite professionals or everyday people who just enjoy the experience of competition and camaraderie. Each person participates in sport for different reasons and therefore sport serves a different purpose for each participant. It is safe to say most of these athletes likely do not stop and ask themselves what purpose sport can serve in their lives as they train and compete. And yet, asking questions about the various purposes of sport can help us make some sense of the many debates we see today over the roles that athletes and sport itself play in greater society.

Is sport just about the action on the field or in the arena? Don’t ask any questions, don’t do anything beyond what your sport demands on the field of play. Or is sport a place for education, learning and growth? Is the purpose of sport simply about the Xs and Os and winning and losing or can an equally important purpose be to provide a platform for social change and promoting human rights? Should we encourage athletes, coaches and sport managers to think about and take an active position on social issues? Is sport just for entertainment and escape or can sport also be utilized for transformational social change and addressing human rights through sport?

A significant reason we see different perspectives, disagreement, debates and conflict between and among athletes, sport organizations, and the sport system itself is because of the different and sometimes conflicting notions of the purpose of sport. Is the purpose of sport only to serve sport itself, don’t question anything, just do your job on the field, just score points and win? Or is the purpose of sport to also serve as a catalyst for good and to exist as a platform for addressing social issues and human rights?

Sport is not uni-dimensional in purpose. Sport holds different, yet valuable, meanings for a variety of stakeholders. These, sometimes competing meanings need not, however, be a zero-sum game where people in sport need to pick and choose a single purpose.  There is space for multiple meanings of sport. Perhaps an important addition to the core purpose of sport is to provide a thoughtful place where athletes, coaches and sport managers can evolve in a human sense, beyond technical performance, but also in their minds and hearts. It is important for the global sporting community to be reflective, proactive and engaged on the topic of social change and human rights as a central area of concern for all stakeholders.  The interpretation of the purpose of sport in part underlies the debates, disagreements and conflicts we see as different stakeholders approach sport from different angles and perspectives. 

Dick Fosbury is the Olympian who came up with the “Fosbury Flop” high jump technique. At the time he competed, high jumpers cleared the bar from the forward position.  Fosbury had the vision and innovation to jump backwards over the high jump bar. He changed the paradigm, the lens and the perspective of how do you do something as basic as jumping over a high jump bar. It some ways this innovative action can be seen as similar to athletes who have a different vision for the purpose of sport. 

People both inside and outside the world of sport may think there is one definition of sport or one way to “do sport”. A few innovative thinkers will come along and challenge us by presenting a different perspective to the purpose of sport. This can create debate, disagreement and conflict. Keep in mind, by the way, that conflict should not always be painted as negative, but can be positive as it presents a growth opportunity. Innovative thinking allows athletes, coaches, administrators, fans, and the media to open up their minds to see different perspectives, different purposes of sport. 

Creating safe spaces and supportive environments where athletes can speak out and speak up on sport and human rights has the potential to translate to better on field performance. Athletes who are told to not speak up and to stay quiet may shut down their on-field performances because they feel alienated by their sport organizations or teammates. Athletes who are supported and feel valued for positions on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and issues of equality, might just perform better. 

Sport has an endless array of purposes to inspire, engage, motivate and transcend. How we define and articulate these purposes informs and determines our lens for how we understand and interpret sport. When a social and human rights purpose is attached to sport, it opens up our eyes to the power sport has to contribute and make an impact in communities around the world. Hopefully the purposes of sport will continue to provide visibility and create space where social change and human rights can become a core purpose of sport. Opening that safe space would represent positive change in the sports culture for athletes, coaches, and sport managers. We are seeing this trend emerge day by day through the words and actions of athletes, coaches and sport administrators, and it is encouraging to see the evolving purposes of sport take shape before our eyes. 

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