Now that the reactions to my blog post about the Lindsey Vonn Sports Illustrated cover has waned, I wanted to share some thoughts.
What I have found interesting about the Vonn post, is not that so many disagreed with my critique of the cover, but that many of the comments contained personal attacks and vulgarity. Dr. Marie Hardin of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism offers some insights about this occurrence on her blog post. I want to take a different slant on the resulting backlash of the Vonn post, as I think it may be representative of a larger societal trend.
I have believed for some time (as have others) that we as citizens of a democracy have lost the ability for civil, public discussion around issues in which we are in disagreement.
Having a discussion in which multiple points of view are encouraged and respected, people participate responsibly, and the common and equal humanity and dignity of each person is affirmed are some of the civic skills necessary for the continued flourishing of a democracy. The ability to critically think about information, whether you agree or disagree, is also a civic skill. Many scholars, including Robert Putnam, have argued that our declining civic skills, civic engagement and social capital (i.e., social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit) does not bode well for sustaining a healthy democracy. I’m concerned that with the growing popularity of social and digital media, that our ability to interact meaningfully, publicly and civilly will continue to erode. What are the implications for our common good, the public good, and our society? What role should sport play in promoting civic engagement?
The institution of sport, particularly sport teams and including sport media, have great potential foster civic engagement. Yet, scarce empirical evidence exists which examines the potential of sport for fostering citizenship, facilitating dialogue, and building community in a way that leads to increased and meaningful participation in the democratic process.
Some scholars, including myself, believe sport teams can provide formative experiences of community, civic engagement, and belonging and are ideally suited for offering a genuine experience of democratic citizenship. Building community, means developing a team where members are committed to the common good, help shape the life of the group, and nurture capacities for citizenship within and beyond the team and themselves. Sports can be a major influence on how youth eventually relate to the broader culture around them. When athletes experience a sense of belonging and feel like a valued and important member of a small community, such as a sport team, it provides a psychological foundation of engagement, obligation and responsibility which, can translate into the potential for active civic engagement. Athletes also learn other valuable skills which are important for civic engagement including, the process of striving for collective goals, tolerance of political, religious, and racial diversity, and negotiation and management of conflict and difference. Sport teams can provide a way for young people to experience and practice shaping a community in the interest of mutual goals and the common good–all important aspects of a democracy. However, the tremendous potential of sports (and perhaps sports blogs!) as a vehicle for promoting civic engagement often goes untapped.
One goal of writing this blog, is to provide a critical evidence-based point of view on a particular topic. I don’t ask readers to agree, but my hope is that readers will consider a different perspective or point of view and engage in respectful debate. I do not wish to silence any perspective, which is why I approved a representative sampling of comments made in response to the Vonn blog. I want this blog to promote dialogue and perhaps build civic skills. Many of the comments were very insightful and interesting, but when the dialogue devolves into personal attacks and vulgarity I become concerned with what this means for us a community and a society at large.