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Sports Without Tribes?

by Miriam Axel-Lute on June 22, 2011

I honeymooned in Vancouver, B.C., and I have held an idealized view of it ever since. But I have to admit that that view got rather tarnished last with the news of the post–Stanley Cup riots. Really? Your team loses a game, even a championship game, and it becomes OK to set fire to police cars and break storefronts? When people do those things in response to legitimate political grievances we put them on FBI terrorist watch lists.

I realize it’s not just Vancouver. It happens all over Europe at football games too. I don’t get it.

But it does put me in mind of an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head throughout this spring, as I watched my older daughter participate in her first tee-ball season.

Let’s be clear up front: She had a blast. Her coaches were great. She learned a lot, and I enjoyed watching her gain confidence at the bat and in the field. Tee-ball is about as low pressure as it gets in the world of organized sports—they don’t count strikes (hitting a ball off a tee is harder than it looks. I can attest from the one time the parents took the field), outs, or runs. Everyone runs one base per hit.

However, as shouts from the older kids’ games drifted over, I also found myself feeling apprehensive about a later date at which I might have to help her navigate the complicated balance between the good stuff, like striving to improve her skills, pushing herself to overcome challenges, and learning to work as part of a team, and less positive things—negative pressure, aggression toward opposing teams, lopsided perspective about just how important winning is.

I’m sure some of you would expect that I’m the kind of hippie who would only want my children to play cooperative games, but I think that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Cooperative games are great, but saying competitive games are always bad is facile. Within a supportive context we are plenty complicated enough beings to tell a game from reality and enjoy a little competitive thrill as incentive to sharpen a physical or intellectual skill without becoming antisocial.

And yet, organized sports does seem to head down the antisocial road all too often. Despite longstanding ideas about how sports develop character, recent studies have shown that high-school athletes are more likely to cheat on exams than non-athletes. Another multiyear study of a sample of 13,000 found that “student athletes score significantly lower than their non-athletic peers in moral reasoning.”

Damning. And yet, I don’t think the problem is the games. I think it’s the team identity.

I although I’m not the first to say that, I realize I may be a little lonely: At 75 percent participation, being a sports fan is the single most popular voluntary activity in the country. You can find dozens of studies that explain how fans treat their team like their tribe. This has pluses in terms of providing a quick and easy feeling of belonging in a fragmented world. But you only have to read the history of, well, anywhere, to recognize the potential problems with attaching such a primal “us-them” association to yet more arbitrary groupings of people. We do not have a good track record when it comes to anyone we label “them.”

On the icky but not violent side, this gives rise to jokes about Yankee fans pushing Red Sox fans off cliffs. But holding the pride and hopes of so many does bad things to the coaches and teams themselves too, right down to the youth level: In one 2002 study, 45.3 percent of all youth sport participants surveyed at been yelled at or insulted, 21 percent had been pressured into playing despite being hurt, and 8 percent had felt pressure to intentionally hurt an opposing player.

Rather than merely complaining, I have an idea for one alternative, and I’d like your help to figure out how it would (or wouldn’t) work. The idea is this: Youth sports pick-up leagues. Retain the focus on coaching, developing skills, working together, and being competitive on the field. But change the composition of the teams throughout the season.

There would be downsides—less ability to specialize in roles, less becoming a smooth-oiled machine of a team. But the upsides would involve learning to be adaptable, work together with varying people, and, crucially, seeing each person on the other team as a past and/or future teammate, not the enemy.

I’ve started a wiki at pickupleague.wikispaces.com where anyone can help work out the logistical details of such a thing. Come weigh in.