The Unifying Power of Sport

By Eden Beschen
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017-2018

Opening ceremonies at PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games

 
Last month, I watched my favourite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, win their first ever Super Bowl. After the game, my social media feeds were full of videos and pictures of Philadelphia fans celebrating. Even though I was about 335 miles away, I felt closer to my hometown than ever.

If you’ve never been a part of such a celebration, it’s a hard feeling to describe. Back in 2008, I was in Philadelphia when the Phillies won the World Series. I joined the pilgrimage down to Broad Street, the aptly described “pulmonary artery” of Philadelphia, and celebrated with my city. Exchanging high-fives and hugs with strangers, there is something truly euphoric about it. There are always a few outliers, but for the most part it’s an unmatched show of a shared joy and love for our team, for our city.

I began to reflect on the power of sport to connect on a local, national, and international level. Being a sports fan is a way of being a part of a community, of belonging to a group with whom you feel a connection. What made the World Series celebration so magical for me was the massive physical manifestation of that feeling. Indeed, the common love for a sport can transcend boundaries and common differences, even if just for a few hours.

With the recent Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, it is worth mentioning the power of sport in shaping national identity. National sports can offer a venue for a shared experience and the stakes are even greater during international competition. The beauty of the Olympic Games is that not only can you come together to support athletes representing your country, but you can also learn about athletes from other countries and their experiences.

In the book, Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, the authors discuss psychological and societal benefits that arise from sports fandom. Partaking in sports fandom and spectating, they argue, can “fulfill the human need for social interaction by providing a sense of belongingness.” The social connectedness that arises from identification with a sports team can act as a buffer against depression and loneliness, while also increasing self-esteem.  Sports fandom can be considered a form of social capital, where connections are made and strengthened by coming together to watch or have discussions. 

In his book, One Game at a Time: Why Sports Matter, Matt Hearn suggests that while playing sports is supported and encouraged, watching professional sports can be seen as mind-numbing and is often looked down upon. He argues that in sports, playing and watching, participating and spectating, are bound together. Professional athletes can certainly inspire participation in sports (which is one of the many reasons why minority representation is so incredibly important). Indeed, Daniel Wann et al. point to studies that have found that fans are more likely to participate as athletes in sports than non-fans.

I encourage readers to support local teams, especially women’s teams, and to engage with each other through the common language and celebration of sport. The upcoming FIFA World Cup this summer offers a chance for people to come together to support a country, an athlete, or to just enjoy the games.

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Works Cited

Hearn, Matt. 2013. One Game at a Time: Why Sports Matter. Baltimore: AK Press.

Simons, Eric. 2013. The Secret Lives of Sports Fans. New York: Overlook Duckworth.

Tanier, Mike. 2013. “A Philadelphia Nocturne” in Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity edited by Daniel Nathan. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 195-204.

Wann, Daniel L., Melnick, Merrill J., Russell, Gordon W. and Dale G. Pease. 2001. Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. New York: Routledge.