Can sport help integration?

Sport is an often-used method or example of how to make those from impoverished or ostracized backgrounds less so. Stories abound of the young boy or girl with a minority background who found a place in sport where they felt accepted. Teenagers who started out with nothing and made something of themselves via the local pitch, court, or track. Adults who were headed down the wrong path, until a local coach or team helped turn them around.

These are inspiring examples that deserve to be told again and again. And yet, the question that needs to be asked is: why did sport have this effect?

Sport is not a social experiment or intervention. Its purpose is not to fix things that seem broken in certain environments or situations – or at least not working well. But interestingly, it often does. Some have taken note of this, and started social programs with sport as a focus. The goal of such programs is, openly, to help make certain environments or situations better. They aim to give individuals a “leg up”, off of potentially destructive paths or to interact more with others. This usually involves introducing them to people together that normally wouldn’t associate with, via sport.

Why not sport in the first place?

As previously stated, sport is likely what we would spend our time on if all our other needs and duties were fulfilled. There are several plausible explanations as to why people don’t. Individuals who are targeted by such sport-focused social interventions may have had too many other needs and duties occupying their time. These don’t suddenly disappear after participating in sport, though.

It’s also possible that their needs and duties are fulfilled, but they choose to spend their time on something other than sport. It could be something destructive, like criminality. But it might also be a hobby, a relationship, or another interest. Or it could be nothing at all.

A third (and very unfortunate) explanation might be that sport has simply never been accessible or available to some. Resources, interest, or other athletes might be lacking. Perhaps any available sport didn’t suit their interests. If football is the only game in town, and they’re not into ball-or team sports, it might seem pointless.

So why should sport suddenly become so important, and life-improving for some?

An invitation, not an intervention

What we need to keep in mind is that people don’t need to be “integrated” or “fixed” by sport. Sport is an open door, as is our society. Postulate 1 states clearly that all are invited to the contest, and the invitation is permanently renewable. That means two things: 1) there must be a door, and 2) anyone must be able to choose to walk through it. It is not something that can be coerced or forced upon individuals or groups to somehow make them “better”. They might feel they are good enough as they are. And what they do with their time might be just as engaging as we think sport is.

Still, members of our sporting society think that are values and actions as athletes are pretty good, and that others might do well to adopt them. So providing the opportunity to take part in them – in short, to become an athlete – is engrained in our society’s DNA. We must invite others to try sport out, and to talk about it (the postulates are, of course, a great starting point for discussion). But becoming an athlete is always, and will always be, a choice for the individual.

There is a fundamental difference in employing sport to solve problems that others have created, or using it as a counterweight to other societies, and simply offering to open the door to it. The former are akin to hijacking its ideals and principles. The latter is an invitation. Getting to explore sport and its unique camaraderie will almost certainly lead to positive outcomes in time. The most important of any such outcomes is that we’ll have another member alongside us, in our society. If others want to call that integration, fine. For us, it is simply another opportunity to challenge, and be challenged…

…and better understand each other.