Publications, opinions, and speeches


Sport and Community

Published on 30/04/2014

Sport is a neglected child of public policy. It is often the first thing that gets cut, along with the arts, when budgets get tight or austerity sets in.

That is not to say that sports don’t get attention. In Toronto public lamentation attends the annual failure of the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the playoffs, and we get excited by the Toronto Raptors run into the playoffs or the spring promise of Blue Jays baseball. And other cities ride the emotional wagons of their pro sport teams too. Sports heroes become public icons, people pay too much attention to the utterances of Don Cherry and other commentators, and we pay big money to watch famous athletes play in stadiums, arenas, and on our television screens. Almost all of this attention is on professional sport (including big-money so-called amateur sport where only the athletes don’t get paid) where we are not the participants, merely the spectators.

But sport is much more than the professional games we see reported on television and in the media. It includes the games organized at school during gym class or lunch, and the school teams playing in the afternoon. It is the community soccer or baseball league playing weekends and evenings, and even the pick-up games in the park or on the side-streets. It is the old man’s soccer game or the old girl’s field hockey. It is amateur and usually organized for fun. It has such a wide range of benefits to individuals, communities, and society as a whole that it deserves to be more valued and supported at the policy level.

What are those benefits?

First there are the positive effects on health and fitness. Even moderate levels of effort produce positive benefits, and good physical health flows through to a more positive outlook on life for most people.

Participating also teaches us how to work with other people: in teams sports we fit in with our teammates and coaches; in individual sports with coaches and other players. We learn how to engage with diversity: of different levels of ability among our teammates; of personalities; of nationality or race; and of energy levels and attentiveness. We learn how to motivate, organize and discipline ourselves so we don’t let down our team, school, or club. We learn to show up on time, in good shape, ready to play, and to be reliable to others. And we learn respect for our opponents, and to bear victory and defeat with the same face.

And society benefits from healthier people engaged with each other across the community. It is easy to say it keeps people from being involved in negative things, but this engagement is more than just the absence of something bad. It improves how communities get along, and makes it easier for people to meet each other and form friendships. Whether it is kids playing basketball in a schoolyard, old men playing soccer, or parents on the sideline cutting up oranges and watching babies, new webs of relationships are being spun. For immigrants, such moments are vital classrooms on learning how their new communities function.

Sport often does not see itself in this role of vital connector of social capital. Many sport governing bodies are very introverted: they think they know who their clients are, who should be involved in the organization of their sport, and what the values and rules are. They can be hard to persuade that change can be beneficial. They are most often volunteers, many of them overworked and put upon by demanding players, parents and funders. They just want to make sure that there is ice in the rink, the lights are turned on in the gym, and the lines are on the field. And without them, there wouldn’t be much going on at all.

The best of them do look beyond current practice to see what their sport could become. They concern themselves not only with who is playing, but who could be playing, the people who could be attracted to the sport. Rather than simply worry about excellence, about how many of their players make the pros or the national team, they also worry about access to the sport, about how to make it attractive to all income groups, to males and females, to novices and stars. And they are eager to include new people throughout the sport at every level, from toting water bottles to the governing board.

Increasingly they think about where the sport is played. Are the playing fields easy to get to? In smaller towns this is less an issue than in our bigger cities. Many sports are organized on a club basis, and players must get to the club playing fields, often on the outskirts of town which require riding in a car. More people could play if the games were organized on a neighbourhood basis, or within a short transit ride. Efforts continue to persuade authorities to permit school gyms, pools and fields to be used by the community after school hours.

And it is important when games are played. Some sports have traditionally been organized on a school schedule, so that during the summer time there is little activity. Kids from middle and upper income groups may go to cottages and camps in the summer, but lots of others don’t and would be excited to be able to participate in games. Better to be hanging around the ball field or rugby pitch than the mall.

Cost can be a barrier to sport, but many sports don’t require a lot of equipment. Basketball, soccer, rugby, volleyball, and swimming are pretty cheap to outfit. And some hockey leagues or ski teams can lend equipment to players. Some corporations donate uniforms and gear.

There are great examples of sport initiatives which are leading the way forward.

  • The Tour de Black Creek is a cycling program for children 12-18. It involves a year-long Healthy Lifestyle Program to improve their eating habits and to increase their exercise programs. In June the children attend a Bike Safety Day event where they learn the rules of the road, safe riding habits, the importance of wearing a helmet, general safety and first aid, and basic bike maintenance, and are escorted by Toronto Police Officers on a supervised road test.

In September is the Tour de Black Creek Bike Race. The children are divided into teams of 15 members and compete in race heats organized by age and gender. The three winners of each race heat are awarded medals. The race organizers also promote a competitive cycling program for children with the aptitude and interest in pursuing competitive cycling.

Prior to the Bike Race Day, the children on each team receive a free bicycle and a safety helmet donated by Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart Charity. The bicycles allow the children to continue their exercise program and provide them with a method of transportation to school, to extracurricular activities and within their communities and beyond.

The Tour de Black Creek Bike Race is supported by sponsors, donors and volunteers, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, and the EMS and fire departments.

  • The Toronto Inner-city Rugby Foundation (TIRF) works to build community through rugby and rugby through community. It brings together Toronto area schools and rugby clubs to build a community playing and training model that consists of strong school programs, club rugby, representative rugby and training academies.

Its programs increase access to rugby and support the local rugby infrastructure. By establishing programs in neighbourhoods which have not traditionally been rugby strongholds, TIRF attracts new players to the game from communities usually engaged in other sports.

It promotes young people’s well-being and teaches leadership combined with the rugby ethos of hard work, camaraderie, and mutual respect. TIRF encourages parents to be engaged with their boys and girls to create a stronger community engagement and engagement with the broader objectives of success at school and with peers.

  • Rookie League: Each summer, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Jays Care Foundation, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, runs Rookie League, a summer-long baseball day-camp. Rookie League gives participants the opportunity to play, learn and enjoy the game of baseball. Now in its in 25th season, Rookie League helps to build strong communities by teaching life lessons about teamwork, leadership and fair play, on and off the field. Rookie League also provides opportunities for physical fitness, health and nutrition education, and encourages participants to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.

The program is open to participants between the ages of 6-13, and this year, over 1,100 youth from 56 Toronto Community Housing neighbourhoods will develop their baseball skills through weekly drills, games and tournaments throughout July and August.

Players receive a hat, water bottle, back pack, glove and a t-shirt, imprinted with the name of a current Toronto Blue Jays player. Rookie League ends with a championship game and awards presentation at the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Rogers Centre.

Each city across Canada has programs like these that engage athletes and strengthen communities. At the same time each city has blockages that prevent participation or limit access to the sport facilities in the neighbourhood, usually because of bureaucratic silos or narrow rules. If sport were more valued as a policy instrument to increase social capital and inclusion, those barriers could be dismantled quickly, and communities could flourish.


Cities and communities, Civic engagement


If sport were more valued as a policy instrument to increase social capital and inclusion, bureaucratic barriers could be dismantled quickly, and communities could flourish.