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Sport often reflects society's prejudices and inequalities. In fact, it can even amplify them. The assumption that society's minorities naturally experience sport as a social glue is therefore false, concludes Ramón Spaaij (professor by special appointment of Sports Sociology at the University of Amsterdam) in his book Sport and Social Exclusion in Global Society. ‘Sport can transcend differences, but it can also emphasise them.’

Photo: Morguefile-Jusbin

The popularity of sports clubs for specific target groups, based on ethnicity or sexuality for example, indicates that some people feel less comfortable in mainstream sports clubs. Spaaij: ‘In the mainstream environment, they are sometimes expected to adapt to the dominant values. This can result in a feeling of not being allowed or not being able to belong, which in turn leads to the feeling of not wanting to belong. Furthermore, the nature of sport implies that, as well as winners, there are always losers. For someone seeking to boost their self-confidence in order to deal with psychological complaints more effectively, for example, that can be counterproductive.’

Thresholds and exclusion

Working with Jonathan Magee (University of Central Lancashire, UK) and Ruth Jeanes (Monash University, Australia), Spaaij analysed the experiences of individuals and groups from all over the world who had suffered social exclusion in and through sport. The researchers spent long periods of time in countries such as Brazil, Zambia, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands, where they examined social thresholds and exclusion processes that influence participation and the sense of belonging in sports among various groups, including women, unemployed youth, the homeless, migrants and refugees, and people with a physical or mental disability. 

Promise for the future

During their investigation, the researchers also came across examples of clubs, projects and competitions that were pro-active in their mission to disregard or overcome social barriers. A number of clubs and projects are able to engage ethnic minorities by using cultural brokers, for example. Other clubs seek to cater specifically to the needs of youth with physical or mental disabilities and have the young people and their families educate the clubs on how best to promote their engagement in sports. ‘These examples show that sport can in fact make good its promise to serve as a social glue’, says Spaaij.

Publication details 

Ramón Spaaij, Jonathan Magee, Ruth Jeanes: Sport and Social Exclusion in Global Society (Routledge, June 2014).