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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Sports can be a force for behavioural change in society
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Sports can be a force for behavioural change in society

Sports-folks should take up the cause of fighting drug addiction and exercise their mass influence

Diverse sports disciplines, from individual items to team events, have the audience reach and ability to exercise influence across a wide strata of society. Premium
Diverse sports disciplines, from individual items to team events, have the audience reach and ability to exercise influence across a wide strata of society.

In 1968, six months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, during the medal ceremony for the 200-metre race at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medallist Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos stepped up to the podium to receive their medals. Neither men was wearing shoes. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. As the US national anthem played, they bowed their heads and raised gloved fists. Their black socks and no shoes represented African-American poverty, while the gloves symbolized African-American strength and unity. That “Black power salute" of Smith and Carlos provided much fuel to the civil rights movement. Many a time, sports has not been about sports performance alone.

In the last few days, it was heartening to see Sony Sports Network, a broadcaster of the ongoing Asian Games, taking several steps to make the event go beyond sports. With a Hindi slogan “Iss baar 100 paar ( this time, more than 100)," it has galvanized the aspirations of not just our athletes, but the whole nation. By including in this campaign people from different walks of life—service chiefs, film stars and business people along with ordinary folks—the network positioned the games as more than a sports event.

No doubt, sports provides large business opportunities. Huge revenues from broadcast rights and the large amounts of money individual sportspersons earn from their brand endorsements is proof of the business potential. But American Olympic gold medallist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley reminds us “there’s an athlete within all of us, and what sport teaches us is that there’s also a leader, strategist, teammate, competitor and more, just waiting to be unleashed." Realizing this truth about sports, can sports go beyond its business potential and use its behavioural facets to act as a catalyst for societal changes?

All successful social movements are, at their core, emotional outpourings. Sports too is all about bare emotions. Many a great sports performance borders on irrationality. Even a competition between two schools in a village can generate intense emotional energy. There might not be too many fields in a society where such levels of emotional energy are generated. Studies of several successful social movements have shown that the strength of such a movement is not large crowds, but small intense groups. The truth is that rhetoric through mass media rarely persuades the man on the street. The sure way to change minds is through face-to-face engagement, which is often best done in small groups.

It is impossible for the leaders of successful social movements to be in touch with every participant. Successful social movements emanate from small groups, say, of the kind where each member is able to check with another, “What happened? You didn’t come for yesterday’s meeting." Sports teams are also all about intense small groups.

Successful social movements should be able to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and capabilities. Sports fits the bill very well on this aspect too. Diverse sports disciplines, from individual items to team events, have the audience reach and ability to exercise influence across a wide strata of society. The Indian team for this Asian Games includes several teenagers and seasoned professionals from a wide spread of small towns and villages in India.

To channel the intense emotional energy that sports can generate across society, it is important that the cause has a very clear purpose. Every successful social movement has a singular devil it wants to defeat. So, what is this devil that Indian sports should take on? It should be drug addiction. It is a growing problem. Indian law-enforcement agencies are trying to curtail the supply side of the problem. With all the powers it has at its disposal, even the powerful US administration has had very limited success in disrupting the supply of illegal drugs in America. So the real solution to the drug problem lies in managing the demand side of the problem. Sports can do much to dissuade demand for drugs.

Studies have shown that if teenagers can be kept away from drugs until the age of 23-24, the age at which their pre-frontal cortex, the brain part that sort of regulates the brain’s executive functions, reaches its maturity, their tendency to get addicted to drugs dramatically reduces.

The emotional intensity of wanting to win even an inter-school match can act as a stimulant to help kids keep away from bad habits. So sports can surely divert the attention of teenagers from drugs and play a responsible role, like the pre-frontal cortex, in guiding them towards appropriate behaviour.

Other studies have shown that the core reason teenagers get into drug abuse is that they lack social connections. It is the loneliness that results from social deprival which typically pushes a teenager into drugs. The good news is that sports is all about connections. The emotional intensity of sports in small groups can provide the much-needed social connections a teenager seeks, but apart from that, it also can provide emotional highs better than any drug. So sports can surely be an antidote to drugs.

The raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos should remind us that there is more to sports than winning medals and its money-earning potential. Can sports today act as a force in favour of societal behaviour change and help mitigate the ill-effects of a problem like drug addiction? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes.’

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Published: 04 Oct 2023, 05:31 PM IST
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