Game changer: cultivating a progressive sporting culture

Progressives should harness the untapped potential of the sporting arena to positively influence and encourage political engagement among young men

By Joseph Holland


In America, 2018 has been hailed as the second coming of the ‘Year of the Woman’. With a record number of women running for election across the country and an all-time high of 256 winning House and Senate primaries, the past year belonged, at least in part, to a group of women whose political action has changed the make-up of politics in the US.

Many political analysts and commentators posit this upsurge in female representation as a direct response to some of the rhetoric and actions of the current administration, which have confirmed to many that the extant culture of American masculinity lacks — if nothing else — self-awareness. The hope is that increasing representation of women in politics will have a positive impact on the younger generation; in particular by providing role models for young women. Millennials and iGens face many challenges. They need to tackle climate change, eradicate misogyny and racism, and pursue ethical and sustainable economic policy. In order for these aims to be successfully achieved, the active involvement of young American men — who, according to a 2018 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, are half as likely as young women to engage in civic and political life — is necessary.

There are many ways that the difficulties inherent in American masculinity can be tackled from within. And there is one particular arena that could be a force to be reckoned with, but currently remains largely untapped in terms of its potential to reshape the culture of masculinity and drastically increase political and social agency. That arena is sport.

“In his life a man can change wives, political parties or religions, but he cannot change his favourite football team.” This quote, from soccer’s 20th century pre-eminent intellectual, the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, although antiquated in its nuance, intimates a truth. It hints at a fact that should (but often fails to) demand a level of self-effacement when discussed in public: that sport can — as the Scottish football manager Bill Shankly famously joked — seem more important than matters of life and death.

Cultivating a progressive sporting culture

In a world of clickbait, 24/7 news and big data, sport is increasingly a fulcrum around which large swaths of men organise their lives, pursue their relationships and even predicate their identity. This, of course, was true before Sky Sports Super Sunday, the NFL RedZone, or the 24/7 Golf Channel. But for a younger, tech-savvy generation of men, sports culture is both increasingly accessible and eclectic. Follow ESPN on Twitter, or ‘House of Highlights’ on Instagram, and find yourself inundated with high-definition moments of athletic and physical brilliance. Share these moments instantly with your friends at any hour of the day and sport can facilitate never-ending conversation that can seem uninterested in and separated from the increasingly divisive aspects of our civic and social lives.

For many men, sport has acted as a place to express frustrations and purge tensions in a juvenile, and sometimes callous, manner; it can feel like a toxic realm, where noxious sensibilities flourish, whether among players or fans. Historically, sport’s exclusive and exclusionary character has acted as a breeding ground for pernicious male perspectives. But this exclusivity need not be predicated on anything less pure than a fascination with physical endeavour and technical excellence. It is a problem of substance, not of structure, that has created a negative dynamic of self-reinforcing apathies and pathologies.

The transcendent and communal embrace that sport provides can be imbued with progressive philosophies and values. Its inimitable ability to go beyond boundaries of ethnic culture, race, religion and politics is already touted by American athletes, sports organisations and fans themselves as evidence of its positive effects on intra- and inter-community relationships. With the advent of constantly accessible, immersive coverage, and a younger generation of sports fans for whom this technology is everything, there is a unique opportunity for the cultivation of a broader national — and international — sporting culture inspired by the progressive values of a new generation. The question of how millennials can facilitate positive cultural growth within sport, while ensuring that it retains its essence as a form of recourse and entertainment, should be a challenge taken on in both the UK and the US.

American sports culture can be defined — much like the country itself — by its multiplicity. Attempting to reshape such an eclectic and diverse arena is daunting. The kinds of tactics necessary to engage football fans in Mississippi differ drastically from those that could be employed for basketball fans on the east coast. But look closer and successful examples of cross-sport, cross-state, cross-culture progress abound. In California, Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, is rarely afraid to comment on the political issue du jour, and has garnered increasing respect as a consequence. LeBron James and Stephen Curry, both basketball and global superstars, have not shied away from commenting on the most striking of the President’s words or actions. And, of course, the decision made by a number of American football players (and coaches) across the nation to kneel during the pre-match rendition of the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement proved to be one of the most arresting talking points of 2018.

These examples lend themselves to an anti-Trump agenda, but for once the main point is not what this says about the US President. The far more powerful message is that apathy is taking a back seat. Athletes, while encouraged to speak and act on uncontroversial matters of local community outreach, have been advised to suppress opinions on national issues. While it is true that education in nuanced issues of social progress is by no means a prerequisite to be a professional athlete, sports stars do have — now more than ever — an ability to help guide social and political conversation. Aided by increasingly connected national and global social networks — where the Pew Research Center tells us 68% of Americans get at least a portion of their news (which rises as the sample population age drops) — athletes have the ability to push important issues into the mainstream of discussion and debate. This capability is directly and fatally curtailed by a tendency toward political and social apathy.

We need only glance toward women’s soccer for proof of the potential progressive power of sport. The global LGBTQ Pride movement (exemplified by the National Women’s Soccer League’s Pride Month in the US) has succeeded in presenting women’s soccer as a competitive, high-level, welcoming team sport, diverse in terms of both sexual orientation and race — two issues men’s sport has struggled with. On pitches across the US, young girls see professional athletes of different backgrounds playing, all with shirts emblazoned in the rainbow colours of the Pride movement, creating a space to engage with issues that were often taboo at the beginning of their idols’ lifetimes.

Despite this, sport’s dominant consumer base remains male. A relationship, played out in the virtual town square of social media, between cognisant public sports figures and young American men, can usurp apathy and lack of engagement, politically and socially engaging a cohort for whom the world seems to be turning upside down. For young men disillusioned with their parents’ politics and immersed in the climate of #MeToo, apathy or reactionary contention can seem like the only two options. A body of sporting role models and idols encouraging involvement and agency provides a third option: engagement.

Motivating youth engagement

Engendering a new culture of progressive agency among a young generation opens the door for business to tap into a different kind of market. A new set of relationships between consumers, influential sporting figures and entertainment organisations could powerfully reconfigure economic dynamics to favour firms that pursue ethical and sustainable practices. Imagine the success of social media campaigns, driven by athletes and sports organisations and supported and shared by fans and followers, encouraging businesses and sports institutions to cultivate relationships that embody the values of our generation. Sport is big business. With a younger fan base given permission by their idols to care about issues from climate change to civic involvement, a new conscious consumer could emerge in the most unlikely of markets. For this to be possible, large swaths of disengaged civic actors must feel motivated to engage and feel that this is both socially acceptable and consequential. A feedback loop of progressive dialogue between athletes and fans enabled by social media would help create a culture where engagement is encouraged.

While considering legislative possibilities such as lowering the voting age, this should not be at the expense of encouraging wider cultural change and exploiting social media and sport in positive ways. Despite the bad press social media receives, these platforms are going nowhere. While they continue to have greater prominence in our lives, sport is not being drastically disrupted in the way that music and film have been. More political engagement is rarely a bad thing. In fact, with an ageing generation making decisions that seem to run directly counter to the environmental and ethical mission of those of us raised in the age of the internet, motivating youth engagement seems like one of few answers to our current global political quagmire.

Joseph Holland plays for Birmingham Legion FC in the USL Championship in the US

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 4 2018–19