This month our trends breakfast explored the nexus between sport and society, examining the way sport affects and is affected by, issues like health, technology, business and politics.
The role sport plays in society is often one of leisure; like music, film or theatre, it is entertainment. Like these other entertainments sport is at times an extreme or simplified reflection of reality, but crucially, it is ‘of reality’, rather than being somehow separate or excluded from it. A football pitch is a space of exception where many of the rules of society do not apply, but events on the pitch can have what some might consider to be more ‘real-life’ consequences – rates of domestic abuse spike following England World Cup matches, while it is thought that Italy’s failure to qualify for the upcoming World Cup could cost the economy €1 billion.
This means that when we talk about sport, it is often impossible to separate discussions of mass-participation or elite physical performance from many of the political, societal, technological or commercial threads that dictate the disparate elements of our complicated lives.
When we asked the guests at the event, “Is sport a force for good?”, the answer was a unanimous yes – the impacts of participation in sport and exercise were a force for good, encouraging better health, reducing the burden on public services, and at its most basic, just being something for people to enjoy. Also unanimous however, were caveats – mostly surrounding the elite, more commercialised nature of professional sport; “but what is done with the profits of this competitive pursuit“, “but athletes are being exploited for their abilities at the expense of their health“, “but athletes feel such pressure to perform that they feel the need to take performance enhancing drugs“.
This is not to say that there are no downsides to participation, it is just that often, these downsides are outweighed so significantly by the upside; cycling in London undoubtedly exposes you to more pollution than riding the bus, but even at the rush hour average for pollutant matter, the exercise benefit vastly outweighs the damage caused by pollution reducing mortality risk.
Balancing this equation becomes more difficult when we look at business and politics, where sporting institutions and events can be manipulated and used as a vehicle for profiteering or influencing politics. The relationship between professional sport, business and politics is nothing new, but the particularity of our time means that it is perhaps more important than ever before to view these relationships critically.
As society and politics have become increasingly polarised, so has the context in which sports businesses exist, with damage limitation by political positioning is now an incredibly important aspect of brand strategy. Perhaps acknowledging this fact, but acting on it in the worst possible way, Mark King, president of Adidas’ North America division, stated that “If [Colin Kaepernick] signs on a team, we would definitely want to sign him.”
The result? Calls from the left to sign him anyway, and calls from the right to boycott the brand for even considering a partnership with the athlete-activist.
Sports and sporting events themselves have long been heavily politicised. However, the way in which this is being done is reflective of our current political reality, with a transition from the use of ‘soft power’ (the ability to attract and co-opt) – as was perhaps the case at the Beijing or London Olympics to ‘sharp power’ – attempts to “pierce, penetrate or perforate information environments” as we have seen with the hacking of WADA & UKAD in response to disclosures of Russian state-sponsored doping.
Ultimately, sport is an expression of society and so like technology, or the media, while there is undoubted potential for good, there are important caveats we must take seriously if we are to achieve this potential.