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Going back to the roots?

Girls in a circle preparing for a game
Author: Jannes Porsche (Photo)

Going back to the roots?

How our perspective on sports needs to change in order to embrace its potential.

During the current coronavirus pandemic, sports, or to be more clear, the sports industry, has not exactly made the best impression. To give an example, the National Football League of Germany (DFL) has made an advance and proposed the resumption of matches, under strict conditions. What followed was an uproar and strong criticism -even by the fans- of the apparent irresponsibility and hubris shown by the high ranking officials in the football industry.

Once again, it has been shown that the sports industry, particularly the football industry as its biggest representative, is one of the most inconsiderate and profit-orientated sectors in the modern economy. This raises two central questions: First, how is it possible, that particularly sport is one of the most aggressive industries, when it is generally agreed upon that sport on a small scale level is a healthy social practice that promotes integrity, teamwork and many other social values relevant to become what is considered a contributing member of society? And second, what needs to be done in order to emphasise and harness these positive aspects of sports?

As NGOs, community and grassroots organisations, we know the impact sport can have on the lives of individuals; it can serve as a tool for personal development, solidarity, empowerment and inclusion. Nevertheless, the general image of sports is marked by elite sports, with its immeasurable sums of money, cruel and inhumane treatment of athletes and the violence surrounding the confrontation of rival teams. These two faces of sports seem to be incompatible, yet still both exist. To dissolve this apparent paradox, we have to take a look on the basic principles of sport as a human practice.

Sport depends on two main principles: the understanding, and acting based on a certain sets of rules, creating the game, and, in the context of the game, competition, with the game itself being prior to the latter: if one does not follow the rules, he or she gets disqualified and is not able to compete. In that sense, the practitioners of sports have to agree upon and respect set rules and be able to identify themselves and others as well as their respective roles in the game. To achieve that, mutual respect and communication are key. The logic of the game is an important step in socialisation and builds the foundation of human interaction.

Consequently, the practice of sports is first and foremost a playing with each other, and only subsequently a playing against each other. In fact, one can attribute these “primal” aspects of sports to its positive effects and its benefits for society. We learn to respect the rules as well as each other, to interact and to share a common space. In contrast, competition places us against each other, and, if taken to the extreme, can be seen as responsible for the negative incidences surrounding sports. Sport in general, as any other human practice, can be seen as a tool, it can be filled with meaning and thus serve many different purposes.

In our modern discourse on sports, the competition has taken the primary place. Competition is interesting and it generates a lot of attraction, especially in the viewer, and it gives us topics to talk about. Unfortunately, this conception has had a strong impact in the current situation: the logic of competition is one present in sports as well as capitalism, and it has led to an easy appropriation of sports by neoliberal practices, enhancing competition and its negative consequences even more.

In the modern discourse about sports, the basic principles are nearly forgotten, hidden behind the discourse of competition. It lies in all our hands to go back to the roots of sports and to remember that first and foremost, we play with, not against each other. If we manage to achieve that, sport can self-confidently look into the future and assume its role in society.

Tilman Menzel worked as research assistant on a project investigating the impact of football on the europeanisation of identities among fans. Currently working with the Costa Rican NGO SEPROJOVEN, using football to work with women, migrants and indigenous peoples.


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Tilman Menzel


Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 18:21