Removing guns from the street through sport
Every year, the United Nations marks Disarmament Week, starting on 24 October, on the anniversary of the founding of the UN. The week aims to promote awareness on issues around disarmament.
Since the founding of the UN in the aftermath of the Second World War, the proliferation of arms has become a major crisis for the world. But the issue of disarmament is not only relevant at the national level – while countries are continuing to arm themselves with nuclear arms, weapons of mass destruction and other conventional arms, there has also been a rise in weapons circulating in communities.
There are many ways in which sport can contribute to peacebuilding, but sport’s role in disarmament is less frequently discussed. Such programmes, run usually at the community level, are an avenue through which local communities can be disarmed.
The 2004 Game of Peace
In 2004, Haiti was in turmoil. Riots in February had forced the then-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to flee the country. Many were killed in the riots and the violence that followed where people were killed and brutally dismembered by rival rebel groups. Making matters worse, floods in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in May killed around 2,000 Haitians and displaced 5,000 families in the country.
In the midst of the chaos and crisis, a football match offered a glimmer of hope.
A friendly match was arranged between Haiti and Brazil. Brazil’s men’s football team was the best and most popular in the world, fresh off their 2002 World Cup win and led by Ronaldo.
This match was originally conceived as a way of disarmament –instead of selling tickets, tickets would be offered in exchange for guns, in an effort to disarm people and reduce violence. The plan to disarm Haiti was somewhat successful, and many guns were collected.
Gun exchange programmes in the 1990s
This was not the first time a gun exchange programme in sport had happened. In the 90s, many such programmes were organised in various states across the United States. A programme in Los Angeles in December 1993 managed to collect 110 rifles, 251 handguns, two assault rifles and 49 shotguns in exchange for tickets to concerts and sporting events. In December 1996, a similar gun exchange programme in the city offered tickets for the Los Angeles Raiders game against Seattle in the NFL’s season finale.
Denver’s Operation Ceasefire project, in conjunction with three of the city’s professional sport teams, ran in the mid to late 90s, offering tickets in exchange of guns. In 2006, the Philadelphia 76ers NBA basketball team announced a programme, in partnership with the local police, offering tickets to a game in exchange for a gun, no questions asked.
Similar efforts have continued. In 2013, an elementary school in the Silicon Valley offered students a book and a chance to win a bicycle if they turned in their toy weapons in an effort to engage children in other games and play. The principal of the school insisted that children who played with toy guns would become desensitised to real gun violence, and wanted to offer the children an alternative, healthier recreational activity.
Some community and law enforcement groups have used similar exchange programmes, but instead of offering tickets to sporting events, they have offered anything from concert tickets to bus tickets to gift cards.
Disarming the future
Various parts of the world continue to struggle with armed violence in their countries and communities. Sport can, even if only at a community level, provide an avenue for disarmament. More sporting organisations should take a proactive role in understanding how sport can contribute to disarmament and peace.