Sean Speer: Sports' importance to society has never been so apparent

As a young person, it was the source of my friendships, self-confidence and purpose. It became a way of life for me and my brother and our friends

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to touch virtually every aspect of our society. This past week its disruptive reach extended to youth hockey in the Greater Toronto Area. The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), which is the largest minor hockey organization in the world with 2,800 teams and 40,000 players, announced that it’s suspending games and practices for the rest of 2020.

League officials hold out hope that its season may be able to resume in January but, of course, that’s mostly supposition at this stage. The threat to the full season is certainly plausible. It may seem like a small development in the grand scheme of things, but it could have profound effects on our communities, households and kids.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with the hockey players and their families. I can only imagine how they feel. I played different levels of hockey from ages six to 18. I was crazy about it. I had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Eric Lindros in my bedroom for longer than I’d like to admit.

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I had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Eric Lindros

It wasn’t just a game for me. As a young person, it was the source of my friendships, self-confidence and purpose. It became a way of life for me and my brother and our friends.

It may seem a bit out-of-proportion in hindsight. I wasn’t that good of a player. Any dreams of reaching the NHL were quixotic. But it didn’t matter. Hockey was key to my identity and personal development.

This experience is hardly unique in Canada. Think of Ozzy Wiesblatt. He was selected this week in the first round of the NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks. Wiesblatt’s story is a powerful expression of the life-shaping effects of minor hockey in particular and youth sports in general.

Prince Albert Raiders’ Kaiden Guhle (left) and Ozzy Wiesblatt celebrate their team’s overtime win over the Edmonton Oil Kings during a WHL hockey game at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Jan. 17, 2020. Photo by Ian Kucerak/Postmedia News

He grew up in a poor household with four other hockey-playing brothers and a younger sister to a single mom who’s deaf. This isn’t a kid who was supposed to make it. But through a combination of talent, hard work and community support from coaches, neighbours and others, Wiesblatt has overcome his challenging circumstances and is now on track to reach the pinnacle of his sport.

But one doesn’t have to reach the NHL to derive benefits from minor hockey. A friend of mine recently told me about his son who has had some challenges in recent years but who has thrived since enrolling in hockey. As my friend put it: “losing hockey (due to COVID-19) is losing the one thing he loves.”

He’s not alone. We often underestimate the benefits of sports. We view them mainly as forms of recreation or entertainment. But sports are bigger than that. They’re part of civil society like marriage or religion or the market.

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We often underestimate the benefits of sports

Sports are a mediating institution in which individuals from different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives come together in pursuit of a collective goal. That can be the Stanley Cup, the local pee wee championship or even the Sunday morning beer league.

In a culture that prioritizes individual autonomy and expression as the ultimate goods, sports operate according to a different ethic. They’re one of the few facets of modern life where we voluntarily relinquish a bit of our individuality to a collective cause.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that research shows sports are a major source of social capital. They contribute positively to social integration, interpersonal relationships, civic engagement and other forms of community building.

A team does its stretches at Toronto’s Ted Reeve Arena in a file photo from March 16 2005. Photo by Postmedia News

This is the key point: sports are a valuable civil society institution not because they produce individual benefits but rather due to their spillovers that extend far beyond the individual.

These community-based benefits are more important now than ever. In a recent essay for The Atlantic, writer David Brooks documented the extent to which rising polarization and precarity in our societies reflect the breakdown of community bonds.

Sports aren’t the full answer to these challenges. But they can help. At a moment of atomization and factionalism, sports can play a crucial role in bringing people together and building bridges across differences. They can give us a renewed set of shared experiences for our age of diversity.

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This requires that participation is inclusive and broad-based. The capacity of sports to produce higher levels of social capital and social trust depends on whether individuals with different backgrounds and incomes can actually be part of them. We need to address the barriers — namely costs — that prohibit some from participating.

At least for now though no one in the GTHL will be able to play because of the pandemic. That’s awful for the kids who’re directly affected but it’s also a shame for the rest of us. Hopefully the season will resume soon. In our increasingly attenuated society, sports are something that we cannot long do without.

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