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The Social Significance of Sports

A few weeks ago, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played a baseball game in an empty stadium. A crack of the bat, the ball soars over the fence, Chris Davis rounds first base, and in the place of an expected cheer… silence.

In the midst of unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Orioles decided to close Wednesday, April 29th’s game to the public. An understandable decision, but the result was haunting. The stands, typically filled with over 30,000 loyal fans, were completely empty. The Orioles won 8 to 2, but no one was there to celebrate it.

All of this bothered me. Seeing the pictures, reading the reports, I was truly saddened. And by what, an empty baseball stadium? What’s the big deal?

As a fairly avid sports fan, I’m used to being chided by those who don’t follow sports. Why invest so much time, money, and attention in something that doesn’t actually matter? Couldn’t you be doing something better with your time than watching a meaningless game? Meaningless. That always stuck with me. Sure, a game is just a game, and it doesn’t make a difference who wins or loses. However, I always push back because there is simply more to it than that.

[pq]While sports themselves may be meaningless, what they facilitate is not.[/pq]

When I first moved to Washington, DC—from California, and Colorado before that—I was immersed in a very different culture. My first job was serving tables at a restaurant, where I worked mostly with native Washingtonians, Moroccans, and Ethiopians. I came from a completely different context, and had little in common with my coworkers. And yet, there was one thing that initially brought us together: sports. We made friendly bets on the NBA playoffs, chatted about the upcoming NFL season, and trash talked about each other’s favorite teams. Through sports, we had common experiences and talking points, which enabled us to discover everything else that we had in common.

Having those common cultural experiences is critical—and yet, Americans of different socio-economic classes no longer have many of them. As Charles Murray describes in “Coming Apart,” we drink different beer and eat different food. There are now hundreds of TV channels to choose from rather than just a few, so we no longer watch the same shows. The same is true for movies and music. Our neighborhoods are often homogeneous, which means we’re in churches and community organizations with people who mostly are similar to us. Politics are increasingly polarized and rarely collegial. In a society that is barely holding together at the seams, sports are among the few common cultural institutions that remain.

And that is why an empty Camden Yards was incredibly upsetting. That week, Baltimore was in turmoil because an injustice had occurred. Even more so, the city was in turmoil because people had long felt disrespected, misunderstood, and estranged. The only sustainable way toward a diverse, but cohesive society is for relationships to be mended—or in many cases, for them to be built for the first time. And for that to happen, people need to be brought together, even if it is by the most trivial things.

So, while sports themselves may be meaningless, what they facilitate is not.