It’s hard to be a socially conscious sports fan. The phrase itself can read like an oxymoron. Athletic institutions often function as shining examples of the lasting endurance of all the world’s destructive ism’s, from race to gender to economics. This week, in particular, was rough.
On Thursday the NFL announced that a deal had finally been reached in its drawn out labor dispute with its referees–only after widespread national outrage over the performance of the league’s replacements. Today, rap mogul Jay-Z kicks off the opening of Brooklyn’s new Barclay’s Center, reportedly the NBA’s first billion dollar arena. The opening marks the next phase in a decade-long saga that’s seen dozens of residents displaced and already driven up real estate prices. The opening also underscores a profound irony in sports and civic life, especially in cities across the country whose demographics have shifted dramatically because of the forces of gentrification: a franchise’s most ardent fans may not be able to afford to stay in the cities that their teams represent.
Still, sports are one of the most enduring parts of our culture. Many books have been written by really smart people about the political and cultural influence of professional sports, but it boils down to something simple: they’re fun. Politics—race, gender, economics and the rest–can get in the way of that fun.
So how can fans use their chosen pastimes to promote social good, without losing the fun? I asked around. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list on how to do that, but it’s a start. Got your own ideas? Let’s hear ‘em in the comments.
Embrace it. There are power in numbers, and no one can ignore the massive appeal of sports teams. Where else will you find a weekly gathering of up to 70,000 people? ”[Sports] are the largest gathering space that you’ll have of people,” says Bay Area journalist and diehard Raiders fan Davey D. “To not be in that arena and have a strong presence is a big mistake.”
Act locally. It’s all too easy to dismiss political organizing around sports because of the million-dollar athletes who play them. But cities are often reshaped by multimillion dollar stadium deals. All too often, publicly financed stadiums are sold to residents as some sort of magical civic salve, with promises that they’ll offer local jobs and boost city revenue. But, as columnist Dave Zirin points out in his book “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love”, that rarely happens, and the results can be disastrous for fans (See: Seattle).
One way to show love for your team and city is to get involved in local politics and have a hand in how decisions are made. “The contradictions we feel as sports fans, we confront those each and everyday in our workplaces, in our media, with the state,” says David Leonard, a professor at Washington State University and tried-and-true Lakers fan. ”We have to immerse ourselves in that space in order to foster change within.” Larry Solomon, a Niners fan and lecturer at San Francisco State University agrees, and adds that fans can join local community organizations. “You see these ad hoc groups created out of an initiative or whatever and they go away, but the community orgs that are grassroots are the ones fighting that fight long term.”
Throw a party. Bring people together to watch a game. It’s easy. You can use that time to do something like registering your friends to vote (which, by the way, is easy to do online). Or you can just use sports for what they’ve always been best for: bringing communities together.
Global Rhythm Group (GRG) is a New York-based organization that uses sports and music for social interaction and change, and from working with local summer basketball leagues to hosting Super Bowl parties, they’ve seen firsthand how sports and justice can work together. “Lots of this stuff is focused on neighborhoods,” says Donna Hernandez, a Philly native and Eagles fan who is organizing Colorlines.com’s November conference, Facing Race, and occasionally works with GRG. “It creates a feeling that people are agents in their communities, and allows other types of art forms to collaborate with each other.”