Home

Social, ecological progress through sport as necessary as ever

Social, ecological progress through sport as necessary as ever

Published

As I took off from JFK last month to attend sport and sustainability meetings in Europe, I reflected on the contrast between the meaningful social progress that sport is advancing throughout the world and the unfortunate attacks recently levied against some athletes by the president of the United States. Why are attempts by athletes to address social and ecological issues so often viewed as controversial or inappropriate? Must society’s cultural interaction with sport be limited to advertisers selling cars, sugared water, beer and sexual attractiveness? As policy makers and people of goodwill throughout the world seek tools to help reduce cultural polarization around race, gender equality and ecological challenges, why should the visible platform that sport offers to address these issues be ignored? Shouldn’t all of us involved with sport try to “Do more,” as Pope Francis urged sports leaders to do one year ago at a papal audience in the Vatican titled “Sport At the Service of Humanity”?

Indeed, consider how culturally influential sports can be: Jesse Owens in 1936, debunking the Aryan supremacy myth. Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in one of the first female versus male professional tennis matches, a big step toward pay equality, and the passage of Title IX. Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War and his role as a spokesman for civil rights. Magic Johnson’s openness about his HIV/AIDS infection, which helped to destigmatize public discussion about that illness, and, of course, Jackie Robinson breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball. And now, Colin Kaepernick …

Although recent headlines might divert our attention, the amount of progressive social work being carried out by sports organizations to this day is nothing less than astounding. The good social work of sport is arguably unmatched by any other economic sector.

Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympics performance is one example of the cultural relevance of sports.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


For example, I was in Paris attending a press conference at Stade Charlety to announce next year’s Gay Games, the 10th international event of its kind focused on combating homophobia, which is partnering with the nonprofit group Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) to promote sustainability. From there I traveled to Switzerland for an international meeting hosted by the Swiss government titled “Achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Through Sport.” That sport and environmental meeting included representatives from the IOC, FIFA, Futbol Barcelona, International Gender Champions, SandSI, IUCN and other environmental and human rights advocates. I also joined environmentalists, business and sports industry leaders gathered in Zurich for a meeting focused on collaborating with the Pan American Games — the largest international sport event after the Olympics — to advance the Paris Agreement’s goal of reducing the threat posed by climate change. Later this month I will attend a meeting titled “Dialogue on Sport and Climate Action,” being held in Bonn, Germany, hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All of this good work has followed meetings hosted during the UN’s Climate Week held three weeks ago in New York City, where attendees included representatives from Formula E, NASCAR, the NHL, NBA and New York Yankees. And the UN’s Climate Week itself was preceded by the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which this year celebrated 10 years of path-breaking sustainability work initiated by Billie Jean King.

This incomplete list of ecologically valuable work by the sports sector reflects an astounding amount of important, socially progressive work by sport and underscores how sport can help to heal divisive social issues and protect our environment.

As readers of SportsBusiness Journal know, one of the great beauties of sport is that it is a unifying, non-political experience. In skilled political hands, professional athletes taking a knee to protest racial injustice and other social challenges would provide an opportunity for an important and necessary conversation. As former CIA Director John Brennan recently stated, “Taking a knee during the national anthem shows respect for the flag and for all those who fought and died for it and, at the same time, [shows] concern about problems within American society that need to be addressed.” Indeed, contrary to what some view as disrespect, bowing on one’s knee is viewed in virtually all religions as a sign of respect. Instead, some have used Colin Kaepernick’s action to divide us and blast new wounds into our polity. How far away such condemnation of Kaepernick’s humble action is from acknowledging all the good work sport has engendered and is engaged in at this very moment.

It is well known that Nelson Mandela famously used sport to help heal entrenched cultural divisions in South Africa related to apartheid: “Sport” he said, “has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” I agree, and I believe that if Mandela were alive today he would encourage athletes and other leaders in sport to speak up and help address the many social and ecological challenges we confront.

Allen Hershkowitz is a founding director of Sport and Sustainability International. Follow him on Twitter: @drhershkowitz

Click here for information on how to subscribe to SportsBusiness Journal/Daily/Global

Coast to Coast

Research and Ratings

    Home