The Future of Sports & Society: Introducing a Citizen Discussion Guide (1/8)

Jeff Prudhomme
8 min readMay 30, 2018
Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

Imagine a Future Without Sports

Try this experiment: try to imagine a future without sports. What would the world look like? What would be missing in a society without sports? Playing with this idea might help you think about the many different roles that sports can play in our society. You might think about the role sports can play in health and wellbeing, or the way sports can connect to personal development and education. You might think about the way sports can boost a sense of community or help individuals get ahead in life. You might think about the economic impact of sports and the way sports fill up our popular media.

This thought experiment kicked off an extended series of citizen discussions that I convened and facilitated as part of my work with the non-profit Interactivity Foundation. These discussions explored some of the emerging public concerns about the future of sports. The goal was to generate alternative possibilities to address some of these concerns.

What follows is an introduction to some of the questions the participants explored and the seven policy ideas they generated. These are not my ideas and they don’t represent the preferences of the participants. These ideas are presented as an invitation to a broader discussion of the different possible public choices we might be called upon to make about the future of sports. These ideas are not policy recommendations from the participants. We are not trying to sell you on any of these ideas. We wouldn’t claim these are the only alternatives. We would be happy to learn of any other new ideas you come up with. The goal is to spur a broader public conversation about sports — not to end one. This is intended to be a citizen discussion guide: developed by and for citizens. We hope you can use it to have your own thoughtful conversations about the different possible ways to approach the future of sports.

This piece is just the introduction. I’ll post each of the seven policy ideas as separate linked entries (see below).

Different Ideas of Sports?

If you seriously entertain the idea of a world without sport, you’ll find yourself wondering about what counts as a sport. What makes a sport a sport? In the US, lots of people think right away of football, basketball, and the major sports that we see on TV. A lot of the rest of the world will also think of “football,” but they’ll be talking about what the US calls “soccer.” Besides football (soccer), they might also think of cricket and field hockey, since these three are the most popular sports globally. For people in cold climates, hockey and skiing are likely to spring to mind, and in warmer climates surfing and swimming. You might think more broadly of things like yoga, martial arts, horseback riding, rock climbing, or double Dutch jump rope.

There are all kinds of things that people think of as sports, and we don’t all agree. For some, it is essential for sports to feature competition and rule-based physical activity. But is something like running or kayaking a “sport” only if I’m racing against someone? What if I’m doing it to compete with myself — to make myself better? What if I’m doing it just because I enjoy the activity? For some people the aspect of competition and measurement is not so essential for sports. For them sports can include fitness and recreational activities (yoga, hiking, weight training, cross country skiing, surfing) regardless of whether they are part of a competition. Some people enjoy the thrill of competition. Some gravitate to the model of team sports and others to individual sports. For others the insistence on competition and the model of team sports makes them feel left out. They feel turned off by competition. They gravitate to more cooperative or less structured forms of play. Any insistence on competition might push them away from sports.

What sports do you enjoy? What makes them enjoyable for you? What do you think makes a sport a sport?

If you go on to consider the broad policy possibilities in this citizens’ discussion guide, try to think about the range of different things that people might consider sports. You can decide along the way what notions of “sports” work best for you. Just keep in mind that there are other ideas and other preferences out there. We’re not all the same. If you define sports too narrowly, you might push out a lot of people and discourage participation. For these discussions, the participants tried to entertain a broad notion of what sports might be so that we wouldn’t leave out anyone.

Exploring Questions about Sports and Society

What’s the current situation of sports in our society — and where might we be heading?

If we look around we see that youth participation in sports continues to decline, even as the profile and the commercialized economics of youth sports continue to rise. Ask anyone who has kids playing (or wanting to play) in travel leagues and they’ll tell you of expenses in the thousands that keep many on the sideline. Sports of all sorts dominate our popular attention, but fewer and fewer people actually play. We hear about the importance of staying active, and yet we have an obesity epidemic and as we lead increasingly sedentary lives.

What if we stay on the track we’re on? What are some of the major questions or concerns about sports that we might face in 20 or 30 years? What could we do now to address some of these?

Here are some of the basic questions you might find yourself thinking about.

Why should we care about sports? Why should sports be considered a matter of public interest — and not just a matter of private or individual preferences? When you think about the roles sports play in our society, you might find yourself thinking about the various public or societal goals we might have for sports. Are sports a matter of public interest because of their role in improving health or perhaps for their connection to education? What about their role for entertainment or economic development?

What if our goal for sports is to develop champions or to boost community spirit? Our decisions about the goals for sports will shape the other public choices we make about sports.

What do you think our society’s goals for sports should be? How do our goals for sports relate to other things, like science and technology, the arts, or economics?

Related to questions of “why” are questions of “who.” Who gets to play? What public decisions will we face about participation in sports? How do questions of participation connect to our overall goals for sports? Questions of participation bring us to other questions about sports and gender, socio-economic class, race, ethnicity, disability status, and age.

In addition to the “why” and “who” questions, there are also the “how” questions. How do we want to make sports policy in order to meet our public goals for sports? Generally speaking, how do we as a society want to handle the big decisions about sports? How should sports be governed?

Beyond these questions, what do you think are some of the big questions we face — or will be facing — about sports?

Different Ways to Answer These Questions: 7 Policy Possibilities

Depending on how you might answer these big questions you might come up with different kinds of policy ideas for the future of sports. In this discussion guide you’ll find seven policy ideas developed by two diverse teams of citizens. They worked together to talk through these issues and probe different possible directions for the future of sports and society. One team was made up of citizens who were simply interested in the topic of sports as an area of public concern. The other team was made up of citizens who each had a more specialized focus on some dimension of sports and society. Together their goal was to sketch out some alternative policy directions that they felt would be good for stimulating broader public discussion about the future of sports. They’re not saying that these are the only possibilities — and they’re not trying to convince you adopt any of them.

If you follow the links below, you’ll find seven broad policy ideas. Five of these ideas orient around different societal goals for sports. The next group of two policy ideas focus on different ways we might manage or govern sports at a societal level. All these ideas represent combinations of a wealth of ideas developed by the two discussion teams. The teams felt sure there was more to say and things that were overlooked. We’d welcome your thoughts about what might be added to the list or what might be revised or improved. Think of this as them passing the ball to you to see what you can come up with.

Future of Sports and Society: Seven Policy Options

Possibilities that Focus on Different Societal Goals for Sports

1. Embrace an Inclusive Future for Sports Participation

Focus on enabling a future-oriented, open, and humane approach to participation in sports by rethinking rules for participation, for example, by allowing athletes to self-determine their gender identity for competition, or allowing the open use of performance enhancing technologies.

2. Sports for Healthy Communities

Focus on using sports to promote health and wellbeing across all sectors of the general population by publicly funding community-based sports for all.

3. Protect and Empower All Athletes

Focus on promoting the wellbeing of athletes by setting policies to support evidence-based approaches to promote health and safety, to empower athletes at all levels to be fully engaged citizens, and to protect athletes at all levels from economic exploitation.

4. Focus on Developing Elite Athletes: Go for the Gold!

Focus on fostering high performing athletes and winning championships by channeling public efforts toward evidence-based approaches for elite athletic development.

5. Sports for Education

Focus on revitalizing the connection of sports to the project of cognitive, moral, and social development by reintegrating sports and education.

Possibilities that Focus on Different Ways to Manage Sports

6. Run a Business as a Business: A Policy for Revenue Sports

Manage the sports industry as any other industry: when sports are revenue-generating enterprises, treat them as normal businesses, adhering to typical free market principles.

7. A Department of Sports: Centralize Sports Policy

Create a centralized public policy-making body within a federal context to improve the efficacy and coherence of our public policy for sports from the national to the local level.

8. Other Ideas to Add?

Let us know what other sports policy ideas come to mind!



Jeff Prudhomme

I'm interested in thinking, exploring ideas generously with others, in the service of liberation and helping to grow a more beautiful and just world together.