Sport and Society – Social Unity and Sport

Editor’s Note: “Sport in American History” is excited to cross-post Richard C. Crepeau’s “Sport and Society” column. This post was originally published on July 22, 2018. A full archive of his Crepeau’s columns can be found by clicking here.

When France won the World Cup last week, the celebrations across that county were massive. In every town and city, French football fans gathered to publicly celebrate the victory. As with so many of these celebrations of major sports championships across the world, commentators turned to the multi-cultural and multi-racial makeup of the French team to speculate on the social impact that such a championship team might have.

The street celebrations in Paris and other cities had a multi-racial makeup, much like that of the team, and the celebration was seen as a welcome relief from the tensions in the country, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks of the last three years. Patrick Weil, immigration historian at Yale, called the World Cup win and the celebrations, “a victory against all those everywhere who are incapable of seeing that with the children of immigration of all origins, one can make compatriots, and fellow citizens of talent.” This outcome will be seriously tested in France where anti-immigration has become a potent force in politics.

Such sentiments as those expressed in France are familiar. In the United States over the last several decades, this sort of conclusion in the wake of major sports victories in many cities has produced similar analysis. In Cleveland, the NBA championship of 2016 was welcomed as a unifying force for the city. In Chicago, the Cubs World Series victory was seen as unifying the city in celebration. A similar analysis can be found for Boston after the Red Sox won its first World Series championship since Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees.

I remember very well the celebrations in Minneapolis following the World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. People expressed their joy and happiness at the spontaneous and organized civic celebrations. Many of the revelers commented on the feelings of community and unity that they felt at that moment of victory and during the celebrations.

In 1968, Detroit was said to have used the Tiger World Series victory as a point of release and relief in the wake of the racial tensions and violence of 1967 and the fear that gripped the city during what were termed the “long hot summers” of the Sixties.

No matter the sport and no matter the city, communal celebration has become an expected part of the rituals of victory and, in case after case, optimistic comments on the effects have become commonplace.

Is this really justified or, in any way, a realistic expectation? Have sports championships been able to transcend and heal community divisions in anything but the short run? It is difficult to find any evidence that substantive change has occurred. This is not to say that sport has failed to contribute to societal change, only to doubt if this is how it works.

Overcoming social, religious, ethnic, racial, or gender prejudices does not happen in a flash, even if the flash is a major sports championship. These changes are slow and gradual, the result of an accumulation of forces that move hearts and minds. Sport, I think it can be said, is one contributor to the process of change, not a major cause of change. It should be obvious that there are many people who simply can ignore evidence or who can compartmentalize the world, refusing to allow evidence in one area to influence another. Put simply, success in sport is not allowed to influence the world beyond sport.

The French in their joy and their long-range reflection on the World Cup victory will internalize the reality of the multi-racial team, and this will impact individual French citizens in varying degrees. The interpretation of the racial difference as racial inferiority will be more difficult for those who have celebrated this team and its star players. If a person of a different race or ethnicity becomes your hero, it is extremely difficult to continue to hold onto the stereotypes of inferiority.

This has happened in many instances in the United States. Heroic models assault stereotypes and, over the long haul, this contributes to and facilitates change. When Martin Luther King first met Jackie Robinson he thanked the baseball player for preparing the way for the Civil Rights movement. Those of my generation who grew up idolizing sports heroes of all backgrounds found it was difficult to accept the stereotypes of inferiority that circulated in American life.

Sports teams and athletes are major public figures and are under nearly constant public scrutiny. They model success, failure, positive and negative behavior; as such they contribute to the development of public attitudes and opinions. Ultimately, all of this contributes to the mix of social attitudes.

Does this mean that the French World Cup victory will change French society? Not immediately, but certainly over the long run, it could. Does the fact that LeBron James is a hero to millions of Americans, mean that attitudes concerning race will change? Most certainly it will, but exactly when that change becomes noticeable in public attitudes and behavior is uncertain.

So what is the role of sport in social change? How important is it as an agent for change? Think about how it has impacted you. Then remember that your change is happening to others, and, cumulatively, this will have a broad impact.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don’t have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

Copyright 2018 by Richard C. Crepeau

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