Sports As an Equalizer

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Written by: Heather Gillin (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: February 13, 2018

In a world where divisions in society are commonplace, there is one thing that most often brings diverse groups of people together: sports. With the 2018 Winter Olympics underway, there is hope that the games will mend relationships between people divided by conflict or prejudice.

Dr. George Cunningham, professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, offers insight as to why sports act as such an effective mechanism in equalizing people of different backgrounds.

“When people participate on sports teams together, they have a common goal, common outcomes and even what social psychologists call a common fate,” Dr. Cunningham said. “If the team loses, it's not an individual who loses, but the whole collective loses.”

Strongly identified fans most often use pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘us’ when cheering on their team, which can create a sense of togetherness in individuals that previously belonged to separate groups.

“That's why you hug the stranger next to you when the team makes a three-pointer or hits the home run, even though you don't know that person,” Dr. Cunningham said. “Because of that identity and shared connectedness.”

Pingpong diplomacy famously broke barriers through sport in 1971. Prior to the US table tennis team’s 10-day visit to the People’s Republic of China, no American had been invited to China since 1949. Their pingpong trip opened relations between the US and China, fostering international diplomacy. Dr. Cunningham said this is an instance where sports possess the ability to transcend political and ideological boundaries.

The 2018 Winter Olympics shows signs of improving relations between North Korea and the world. North Korea will participate in the games and even join South Koreans in creating a unified ice hockey team, with players from both North and South.

Along with breaking barriers in international relations, sports can also provide opportunities for eliminating bias. In 2016, Dr. Cunningham conducted research on sport participation and prejudice.

“We've seen where participating on sports teams, or even engaging in informal sports with people who are different than you, can help in prejudice reduction toward that individual, and depending on the nature of the interaction, toward the group as a whole,” Dr. Cunningham said.

Following division created by the 2016 election, Dr. Cunningham said the Winter Olympics will provide Americans a brief opportunity to put aside differences and cheer for Team USA, as a unified people.