Sports Diplomacy and Understanding Athletic Culture

From the USC Public Diplomacy blog, an excellent resource to track  American diplomacy efforts:

U.S. sports diplomacy is enjoying a comeback of its own. With strong support from Under Secretary Karen Hughes, the Department of State’s budget for sports grants and sports programming has climbed from a lowly $600,000 to roughly $5 million in just five years….

Those who contribute to State’s athletic initiatives attribute their success to the universal nature of sport. Only certain cultures or segments of society show strong interest in speaking English, traveling to the United States, attending a classical music event, or participating in a discussion on human rights. "On the other hand" they note,"virtually all cultures and all citizens have an interest in and appreciation for sport. This makes it one of the best methods for exchange" — especially for diplomats operating in an age when the opinions of foreign publics are so crucial for success.

Interestingly, the United States is one of only a few countries that does not have an official Minister of Sport — but this is also what makes our sports industry such a great resource. We do not publicly fund or run our National Olympic Committee; our professional sports leagues do not report to the government; and we do not provide money for the training of U.S. athletes. In other words, sports in the United States are formed from the bottom up and thus represent a microcosm of our country as a whole, both good and bad.

Interesting — I love thinking about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to projecting soft power. The fiasco in Iraq has taught us that we should be focused much more on these kinds of diplomatic efforts to affect change in troubled countries.


While we’re on the topic of sports, I want to make a separate point: I’m surprised when pundits and intellectuals claim to understand the world we live in while also pleading happy ignorance when it comes to all things sports. I would argue that whether or not you’re a fan, whether or not you were thrilled when Barry Bonds broke the home run record (congrats, Barry!), understanding athletics’ impact on a society is fundamental to understanding the society in general. Sports are just too central to too many people’s lives, even if they’re not central to your own.

So while I don’t think you need to track scores or go to games, I do think that if you’re to call yourself an informed citizen you should have basic literacy in the amateur and professional sports of the day: what they are, how they work, what the trends or scandals are, the magnitude of the industries that surround them, and the values propagated by the most influential living athletes.

I find it interesting that some of the most well-respected journalists today — Malcolm Gladwell, George Will, others — are huge sports fans. I wonder if their understanding of sports and its role in society positively contributes to their work as professional commentators on culture and politics?

6 comments on “Sports Diplomacy and Understanding Athletic Culture
  • I love this concept Ben. I think some of George Will’s best work is when he compare’s American baseball to some country’s political-economic sturcture in just one short essay. Amazing.

    Amongst a society’s elite (politicians, executives), it seems that a passion for the arts (ballet, classical music, painting) represents a greater sophistication. But, a true understanding and appreciation – never mind a talent – for any sport is certainly as complex and should be part of the repertoire of “well-roundedness.”

  • I agree with you, Ben.

    I think you’ve blogged before about the importance of analogies and metaphors to articulate complex concepts. Sports metaphors are a great way teach life lessons. A certain group of elitists consider sports to be a waste of time, and there’s certainly a stigma around the uber-sports fan — extremes are easy to criticize.

    Most adult sports fans fell in love with sports by playing them in their youth, so their understanding comes naturally. Those who never played sports generally don’t have that innate understanding or interest, so picking it up must seem like an unnecessary chore.

    I would argue, though, that it’s the passion for these games that really help people connect and find meaning in athletics, not just a mere understanding of the rules and structure. Having a passion for sports is harder to pick up later in life.

    Perhaps as we push young athletes to embrace “intellectual” interests we should also be doing more to inspire that passion for sports in young intellects?

  • In two days, I return to my old job as a high school librarian. We have a small band, started from scratch about 5 years ago, so the band director asked me to be in the pep band. I said, “The only problem with that is that I hate sports from having played in pep band before.” He persuaded me that it provided the best visibility for the band, so I figure I’ll try to play for half of the basketball games. I hate football, but basketball is okay. Gnip Gnop is okay. I love to watch Wimbledon. I used to like professional bowling (it was good to iron to). Back when they showed every Olympics event, Howard Cosell made me briefly appreciate boxing. But man, I hate football. I agree that sports is central to too many people’s lives. Yep, that’s the problem.

  • Sports are a dual-edged sword. Their clarity and simplicity (relative to the real world) can be used to derive keener, deeper insights, or to promote simplistic, easy, cliched answers.

    The anti-sports elitists see coaches and players spewing cliches and think of sports as an antiquated tribal ritual. What they miss is that the very simplicity of sport is what allows it to serve as an effective microcosm, just as Plato examined the microcosm of the individual to determine the nature of justice in society.

    On the other hand, those who believe that all of live can be reduced to the lessons of the playing field are also missing something. The simplicity of sport makes it a poor substitute for an overall understanding of the world. Far too many great athletes have fallen on hard times precisely because their mastery of the sport caused them to develop an unrealistic assessment of their skills in other areas.

  • @Brian Wynne Williams (& the world): I love sports more than words can do justice, and indeed their parallels to other aspects of life are great teaching tools and means of expressing a complex concept or principal simply… which is why I propose a moratorium on sports analogies. Not a long one mind you, but some reprieve. Like whale meat and ivory, we have overharvested the beautiful simplicity that is the sports analogy. Our bloodlust for that elusive metaphor or similie about the national pastime or a game in the local sandlot is over the top and we have killed their effectiveness. Let’s give em a rest for a while (maybe bring back some retro analogy genres that have fallen by the wayside) and let their novelty replenish huh?

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