By Ken Reed

One of the most progressive thinkers we have on contemporary sports issues is John Gerdy.

Gerdy was an All-American basketball player at Davidson College and later an athletic administrator and sports management professor. But throughout his career, he’s never been one of those people that keeps doing things just because someone tells him “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Gerdy’s career has been all about finding ways to make sports better, for all stakeholders, not just the wealthy and powerful sports barons. He’s written several books towards that end. Today, he writes a blog on sports issues. (He also blogs on music topics, another of his passions.) You can find his work at

One of Gerdy’s recent blogs on sports really grabbed me. It was titled, “Sport As a Tool For Civil Rights: You Can’t Have It Both Ways.” It’s his response to those who say “sports should be a ‘safe zone’ from politics and social issues.” Those critics want people who play sports, write about sports, broadcast sports, and manage sports to simply “stick to sports.” They want sport to be a diversion. But sport is not a diversion. Many times sport is life with the volume turned up.

Sport and socio-cultural-political issues have always intersected. Think Jackie Robinson, for starters.

Gerdy writes:

“One of the most important, powerful and fundamental justifications for our society’s tremendous investment in sports is precisely because it has the potential to break down barriers and push for social change and civil rights.”

Nelson Mandela used sport — rugby in particular — to help bring his racially, politically, and socially torn South Africa together.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” said Mandela. “It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

The examples of sport as a powerful social justice and civil rights tool form a long list.

“Sports have long been looked to as a powerful example for social change, particularly as it relates to diversity and civil rights,” writes Gerdy.

“The fundamental principles that drive progress in these areas are fairness, tolerance, cooperation and equal opportunity. Sports is a wonderfully effective platform through which these principles can be demonstrated.”

Indeed. The foundations of sports are equal opportunity, fair play and sportsmanship. As Gerdy points out, those foundations parallel “the fundamental values and principles of civil and human rights.”

“Sports is an enterprise where race, creed and background have, for the most part, little impact on achievement and opportunity, at least compared to many other industries and enterprises,” says Gerdy.

“Coaches are, above all, equal opportunity ‘employers’ interested not in the color of a wide receiver’s skin but in whether that player is able to contribute to the team’s success on the field. Or, to put it in a civil rights context, to play off the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, coaches do not judge players by the color of their skin, but by the content of their ‘game.’ Coaches play the best players regardless of color or creed because they want to win above all else. Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”

Now that thinking might be a tad pie-in-the-sky when it comes to SportsWorld but it certainly is more true in sports than any other aspect of our culture.

“The concept of fair play and equal opportunity is sports’ most powerful and important value and characteristic,” concludes Gerdy. “It’s part of sports’ DNA.”

As Mandela said, sport has the power to change the world for the better. And that’s something all of us who love sports can be proud of. Even occasionally-cynical sports reformers like this writer.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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