The Uniters: The Value of Sports in Addressing an Increasingly Divided World

By Svanfridur M.

At the start of the season, crowds fill the field where athletes will soon be playing. Instead of the orderly lines of figures decked in their uniforms, fans and journalists struggle for a chance to ask questions of the players. Lights flash in the night; people shout over the din of others shouting; cameras flash to record the day for millions around the nation.

A world away, two people stand in a padded arena. Hands clenched, they bounce on the balls of their feet and wait for the signal to begin. Around them, a sizable crowd watches, nearly silent. They kick and dodge swiftly, the only sound the slap of feet against protective padding. A whistle blows, startling the dancing fighters, and one raises their fist to polite applause.

This pompous celebration of American football compares to the quiet respect of Japanese karate in a way that reflects the countries’ respective cultures – a trend that, if one looks closely, pervades in most examples.

Look closer at American football. The game is well known for its violence, and has a reputation for giving players serious injuries. A proud, patriotic nation, the US is known for its righteous values and its willingness to put others through “fire and fury” should they dare oppose them – an aggression that is reflected in the aforementioned attributes of football. The US is also referred to as a “melting pot” of a nation, and likewise football is a melting pot of a sport. It’s an amalgamation of many sports played throughout history, reflecting the cultural amalgamation that created the current United States.

Karate, practiced by the Japanese, is an even clearer example of this. Like the Japanese social structure, its belt system is strictly hierarchical, and it stresses a respect that is essential to Japanese society at large. The history of the sport also reflects that of its country. Japan has a history of banning weapons, and so the Japanese developed a mode of self defense that literally translates to “empty hand”.

Sports such as these have been around nearly as long as human civilization has. And like cultures vary, sports clearly do too, in a way that tends to reflect the values of the culture from which they came.

For most of history, this variation has worked. People believed the rights and wrongs of whomever birthed them, and stayed in the places where these local truths were accepted.

But globalization has changed all of that. Not only are goods and information moving around the world, but people are too. The United States is a great example of this. It is a nation of immigrants, and called so for a reason: over 46 million people in the US were born in a foreign country (that’s 1/7 of the population). As a result, 60% of the population is white, 18% Latino, 1% Native American, 6% Asian, 13% African, and 2% of mixed race. Immigration is also increasing – in the US and globally. In 2000, 173 million people permanently left their home country. In 2017, 278 million did. These numbers are far out of the historical norm, resulting in much of the violence that is being observed across the world as people struggle to adjust.

Like immigration rates, the number of hate crimes has also been increasing over the past few years. In 2017, 58% of hate crimes were due to race, and 22% due to religion. That’s 70% of hate crimes that before widespread immigration would never have happened.

This tension is culminating not only in numbers, but in tangible, horrific events. This March, a man opened fire in two mosques in New Zealand, killing 49 men, women, and children in their places of worship. The shooter cited a hatred of Muslims as his motive.

In 2017, a white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, VA, due to the decision to take down the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee who fought for the continuation of slavery in the Civil War. It is part of a resurging movement of racism and white supremacism.

In the 2019 European elections, Europe saw a surge of nationalist politicians. In the past, such candidates have been relegated to the side-lines, but now they have won some nations preaching anti-immigration and anti-European Union values and using xenophobia to rally people.

Instances such as these are occurring everywhere that globalization has made for more diverse communities, as people are threatened by other cultures living alongside them. But the world won’t be going back to the age of relatively stagnant populations. Countries will only become more diverse, and if the world continues fearing the “other”, then violence will only increase.

This is where sports and their similarity to their cultures becomes important. While languages, religions, etc. have largely stopped short of crossing ethnic lines, sports have crossed them effortlessly. While people fear the other, sports are familiar enough that they are adopted with relative ease.

The best example of this phenomenon would be soccer. The most popular sport in the world, it is played by over 265 million people and has a fan base of 3.5 billion people. Though the sport originated in tiny England, it is now played all around the world.

The language, religion, and values of these people haven’t spread as far. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world – not nearly as much as those involved in soccer. And English is spoken by just 1.5 billion. People reject language and religion because they’re invasive; but sports aren’t invasive, they’re uniters.

Sports unify strangers, giving them something instantly in common. And the kinship they provide in loss and victory transcends the barriers created by differing languages and beliefs. There isn’t any room for the animosity of the real world on a sports team. Montclair State University football coach, Mike Palazzo, attests to this, saying, “We put a lot of emphasis on becoming a family… [because] we can’t have any divisions in a college locker room… [And] just like at home you’re going to have… somebody that’s different than you, but we’re still a family.”

Most importantly, sports embody a culture in a subtle and friendly manner. The respect of the Japanese, the pride of the Americans – all that is communicated to those playing or following their native sports. And while language and religion are clearly different, sports don’t differ too much between cultures, so people are more comfortable with them.

Therefore, sports represent the world’s best bet at overcoming its hatred for the other. Playing with another people humanizes them so that they are no longer foreigners, and the way of presenting their values through a game makes them infinitely more palatable.

This makes sense. After all, people wrestled in the dirt with people cheering outside of mud huts in ancient Mesopotamia, and people wrestle in the dirt with people cheering outside of New Jersey schools in 2019. Sports are familiar, and people ache to see the familiar. So even when it’s a strange-looking people, speaking a strange tongue, is the sight of children kicking around a soccer ball not the most familiar thing in the world?

Student Bio

Svanfridur M.

2019 MSU Camp

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