As a former college football player, I’ve found that lessons learned on the playing field transfer very easily to the boardroom. The decisiveness and focus required to be successful at sports have paved the way for my success in business. Athletics has helped me build discipline, teamwork, and communication.
After all, on the playing field, only one thing matters: can you do what you need to do in order to win? Can you score the touchdown, kick a goal, outrun your competitors, or knock down your opponent? Lost in the buzz of adrenaline and the thrill of victory (or the lessons of defeat), are things like socioeconomic status or personal wealth. In its place is an arena where, to paraphrase a former mentor, you are judged by “the content of your character,” and not by the color of your skin.
The inner city and how sports can lead to positive change
Sports is a meritocracy, perhaps one of the last few left in our society today. But what about those who don’t have the opportunity to build character on the basketball court or the soccer field? What about the less fortunate youths, who miss learning valuable lessons because they don’t have access to organized sports? Today, a child who lives in an urban, low-income community is four times less likely to play sports than someone living in a more affluent community down the road. Not only are such youths deprived of development and learning opportunities, they don’t have sports as a positive outlet, thus making them more likely to join gangs, carry weapons, and get into fights in school.
Given its positive effects, it’s unconscionable to deny urban youth the opportunity to play sports. In the United Kingdom, forward-thinking authorities have funded sports infrastructure in inner-cities, recognizing the constructive impact that such activities can have on the lives of children. By providing children a positive outlet for frustrations, a safe environment, and a place for personal development, the government is helping alleviate some of the pressure on low-income youth, and creating a safer, brighter environment for tomorrow.
Further, sports have a host of hidden benefits for growing minds, usually in the form of “soft skills,” those vitally important (yet less glamorous) abilities that can help children thrive in new and unfamiliar situations. From honing decision-making skills (players must make quick, split-second judgments) to communicating briefly, fairly, and effectively. It’s not always easy to sense the positive impacts of sports–even if one can easily see a clear before-and-after picture.
Sports can help overcome prejudice and injustice
Sports also has the ability to bridge racial, cultural, and socioeconomic gaps. In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, award-winning sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel relays one such anecdote: One night, coming home from a game, his son chimes in during a loud, rowdy conversation amongst a group of excited young African American boys. Kimmel’s son weighs in with the name of his own favorite basketball player, sparking a lively, friendly dialogue and putting the rest of the passengers on the subway at ease.
If such a fleeting instance can bring two totally different groups closer, how much more can a coordinated effort, like organized sports, accomplish? On the macro level, sports has been a powerful weapon against the racist injustices of our country, from the pure athletic prowess of Kenny Washington, one of the first black running backs, to Jackie Robinson’s unforgettable Major League debut.
Even on a smaller level, such as that of individuals, groups, and communities, sports can smash stereotypes and foster friendships across demographics. In a case study on Remember the Titans by psychologist Dr. Wind Goodfriend, organized sports can help players see each other as individuals, provided it is done correctly. Dr. Goodfriend lists several key factors, including a level playing field where promotions are based solely on merit, a unified mindset (our team versus another team, not black versus white), and the existence of a supportive authority who is dedicated to integration and positive change.
It’s true that examples like Jackie Robinson or Coach Herman Boone of Remember the Titans aren’t, by themselves, enough to overturn systematic discrimination and inequality–nor can the act of playing sports, in and of itself.
But they can help build leadership and other soft skills amongst the underprivileged, prepare our children for the challenges of tomorrow, and most importantly, foster empathy–a trait that is increasingly lost in our society of social media bubbles and fake news. In that light, sports can be as critical to future success as any core class.
In the end, one thing is clear to me: without sports, I would not be where I am today.