Sports are excellent avenues for the learning of civic values that can invigorate our democracy. Simply by participating in athletics in whatever method is most appropriate, citizens can appreciate values that are critical to the success of the Union. Especially considering the near unanimous experience of athletics in the formative years of our youth, sports are valuable opportunities to cultivate collaboration, empathy, confidence, and many other qualities. The following practices encourage the strengthening of democratic values and virtues in the realm of sports through the activities of athletes, sports leadership (including coaches, parents, and sports administration), and spectators.
Practices for Athletes
Foster overall team success.
Cultivating the virtue of humility fosters an environment where all can thrive. No matter how good any one player is, in a team sport, they will not be able to single-handedly win the game. Success requires trust that others will do their part and confidence that the roles will combine for a beautiful product. Next time you are playing a team sport, notice how your role and the roles of your teammates are dependent on each other for team success. Similarly, our democracy is dependent on various systems of checks and balances. If one part is not working properly, it has ill effects on our whole political system.
Build cultural knowledge and acceptance.
One of the obstacles to a constructive democracy is fear and ignorance. On a sports team, young citizens will likely be exposed to people who have different cultural experiences than their own. This is a powerful opportunity to foster appreciation of other cultures, especially if they are on the opposing team. You can practice building deeper community with a diverse world when you recognize this. Take some time to get to know your team members. Celebrate their birthdays, learn about their cultural heritages, and ask questions beyond the surface level by being open and curious about what they share.
Practice civility with officials and referees.
If on a regular basis you express appreciation and gratitude for the service that officials provide, rather than letting their work go unrecognized, you will find that you will not get as frustrated with officiating during sports events. Remember to approach referees and officials with respect, keeping in mind their humanity. This is the same attitude that we should try to take with public servants. Their jobs are necessary for the operation of our society, and they often settle for lower pay in order to serve the public.
Honor your "opponent."
One of the values needed for a thriving democracy is the ability to work for the common good. In order to do this, the us/them divide must be disrupted. You can practice this with your "opponents" in sports. Rather than seeing them as enemies and "trash talking" them, try to operate as part of a unity. Celebrate the outcome whoever is the technical winner in a game. Remember that opposition is a necessary component in a democracy. In the judiciary, we need both prosecutors and defense attorneys to achieve justice. In politics, we need various political parties to bring different opinions to light. In sports, the most rewarding and memorable games are ones with a strong opponent who challenges your team to play their absolute best in order to win.
Return to "the love of the game."
When you play not for an outcome such as winning or losing, but instead for the sake of the beauty of the game itself, you unlock your imagination. Then you can enjoy the game more deeply. This increased imagination will also help you use creative thinking outside sports, such as when confronting challenging social and political realities. In an often-times depressing world, sports can be an escape to help you recharge and deal with difficult situations with a fresh perspective.
Use your platform to raise awareness for political issues.
Throughout history there have been powerful moments when sports and politics intersected. Examples of this include: Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, Jackie Robinson in 1947, Bill Russell in 1961, Muhammad Ali in 1967, Toni Smith in 2003, Colin Kaepernick in 2016, and the U.S. women's soccer team in 2019 (find a list and stories here: https://theundefeated.com/features/athletes-and-activism-the-long-defiant-history-of-sports-protests/). Consider ways in which your and your team's platform can raise awareness of social matters you care about.
Practices for Coaches and Managers
Practice cultural sensitivity within your organization.
Organizations have the opportunity to enact policies and create products that are culturally inclusive. For instance, Nike recently created a hijab for women athletes to wear while they engage sports. Consider how your organization can create products and practices that welcome diverse people.
Listen to others with respect.
Within sports as within all of life, we reveal our respect for others by how we communicate and how well we listen to them. This is especially important for coaches building rapport with athletes. Remember that as a coach, you are an important role model for players. Set the intention to listen from your heart as well as from your mind. Allow your heart to connect to an athlete or colleague with whom you are talking. Try to maintain a sense of holding yourself and the speaker in nonjudgmental awareness. Listen for any longings for themselves, their loved ones, and the larger community. This will provide you with insights to run an organization that works better for all members involved. When others feel that their input is valued, they will become more invested in the team.
Coach the "whole" athlete.
A key and necessary democratic value is E pluribus unum or "out of many one." This requires the ability to embrace diversity and, at the same time, seek what we have in common.
If you are a coach who's committed to maximizing your team’s potential, attend to the whole experience of your athletes, including aspects like gender, socio-economic status, racial/ethnic identity, etc.
Take a moment and become aware of the athletes you work with. Picture them in your mind. You may want to focus on just one athlete or the group. Ask yourself: What do I assume is true about these people? How do I feel toward them? Are there aspects of them I might be missing? What fears do I have to connect with them? Allow yourself to become aware of your interactions with them to free you up to learn more about their holistic human experience.
Before practice, take time to facilitate group discussion either as a team or in smaller groups (depending on the number of players). If there is a time crunch, you can perform this activity while leading the pre-practice stretches. Ask the players if there is anything they want to share with the group: sad or happy things that have happened to them, fears, grievances, or other matters. It is important to establish trust that what is said during this time is not repeated elsewhere. The goal is to help the athletes feel safe in each other’s company and to help them build stronger bonds. It will surely help on gameday when the group is in a tough spot. In close games, no matter the sport, the team with stronger friendships usually wins. Also, the experience of the athletes will be a more positive one because they will have a stronger community.
Sports require the use of an assortment of equipment and facilities. Consider ones that are easy on the earth, obtained from companies committed to ecological sustainability.
Also think carefully about changes you can make to reduce your carbon footprint, and make a commitment with your team and colleagues to do so. A free carbon footprint calculator (such as those listed below) can help you determine the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to your consumption of fossil fuel.
Give back to the community.
Sports are one of the most lucrative businesses in the U.S. economy in both the professional and collegiate realms. Give back to the communities that support you, for instance by offering scholarships to a youth sports camp or by hosting a golf or tennis tournament fundraiser.
Practices for Parents and Spectators
Learn about the injustices that occurred (or still exist) in your sport.
Some of the most powerful trailblazers for racial equality in history have been athletes. Professional football has been integrated since the 1920s, forty years before the Civil Rights Movement. However, it was not until 1989 that the first black man was hired to be an NFL head coach. Until recently, black players were discouraged from playing the quarterback position because of its intense intellectual demands. Learning about the inequalities in your sport will teach about injustice and help identify the need to continually confront inequities in our society.
"I spot it, I got it."
One of the difficulties in American society is that we idolize (and demonize) celebrities. This is also true within sports. Objectifying celebrities takes us away from building a society that values equality, which is a key democratic principle.
To become more aware of the full humanity of celebrity athletes, consider using the affirmation, "I spot it, I got it" next time you admire their greatness. This will help you respect the hard work that got them to that point while also recognizing your own inner greatness.
Also make a point to listen for athletes' human stories, their cares beyond the sport. This listening helps grow in you a heart of compassion that will serve you and our world.
Pay attention to your neighbor at an event.
Get to know the person next to you at an event, particularly if they are rooting for the other team! Ask about how long they have enjoyed watching the sport and what garnered their interest. Hospitality — forming relationships with those who are different than us — is a key democratic practice