Soccer Thinking to Build Social Capital and Strengthen Communities
Recently I completed and defended my master’s thesis entitled, “Social Capital and Soccer: Adult Soccer Leagues as Arenas for Immigrant Incorporation.” The study measured the level Social Capital within five different soccer playing communities in D.C through a mixture of online surveys, focus groups, and participatory research. More personally, the study helped me to understand the value of soccer, during a time in my life- after my own soccer career has finished- when I questioned the value of the sport that I had spent so much of my life playing.
In his memoir Fever Pitch (1992) on his experience as an Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby describes the Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 fans as “not just another football accident, the sort that happens once every few years, kills one or two unlucky people, and is generally and casually regarded by all the relevant authorities as one of the hazards of our chosen diversion.”(Hornby 1992, 15.4.1989) As a 16-year-old ensconced in soccer, I questioned the way that soccer was described as a ‘chosen diversion’; what did he mean by it, a diversion from what? As the end of my own soccer career became clearer, so did my understanding of what Hornby was implying; like reality becoming apparent at the end of a good dream. Soccer is something that humans use to pass the time, a distraction from the inevitable. When considering the human condition, it is a struggle to find meaning in anything let alone something as seemingly trivial as soccer. I suffered from something that Milan Kundera would probably articulate as vertigo, “Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves” (Kundera,1984, page 62)
The Tennis Court
In the midst of this, I sought a familiar outlet and searched for a pick-up soccer game. DC Soccer Meet-Up, a website organizing pick-up games in the city offered a community where “everyone was welcome” and a game in Jesup Blair Park in Silver Spring, Maryland, part of the Washington DC suburbs. The game took place on floodlit tennis courts. Most of the players were from Sub-Saharan Africa, presumably Ethiopia based on the language they spoke. There was one Hispanic man, and one Asian man, and no women; I was the only non-Hispanic white man present. I asked if I could join, and was promptly put on a team that was waiting for their turn to play. I worried about my wallet and keys and was careful to put them deep within my jacket, which I shed before playing. At first, I was uncomfortable, but as the games continued, and I learned other players names, and established rapport on the soccer field. I began to think less about my wallet hidden in my jacket – and more about the players around me. By the time the game had finished, I gave one of my fellow players a ride home. Clearly, he was no longer a stranger.
The whole evening struck me as profound, in ways that went beyond the feeling of stress relief that playing and exercise engender. I was struck by the shift of trust I had experienced throughout the evening. From feeling uneasy about leaving my wallet unaccompanied at the beginning, to offering a ride home at the end, a palpable growth of trust had occurred. There was something about the soccer field, and the shared activity that had facilitated a remarkable growth in localized trust among the players. By the end of the night, I had a new friend, a contact in my phone, and a place that I could go on a weekly basis and experience community and belonging. I also left the tennis courts that with an inkling for what would eventually become a longitudinal study of social networks that are formed on the soccer field. That study helped me to understand the value of soccer. Divorced from any romanticized notion of the beautiful game, this study shows that soccer’s true value is its ability to bring people together, to share time and place, and create social capital. Bringing people together and instigating social engagement, that’s beautiful.
In 2006, upon winning the Johan Skye Prize, political scientist Robert Putnam presented a statistically-based yet controversial argument that as communities become more ethnically diverse, levels of localized trust and subsequently social capital tend to fall. The implications of Putnam’s argument are broad and worrisome, given the global trends towards metropolitan areas becoming more, not less, ethnically diverse. My experience and this research offer an alternative vision to Putnam’s thesis. I had entered a diverse community and done the opposite of retreat into my shell. In fact, I had come into the game relatively isolated, and left with new social connections and a more positive mindset. Within it, this community of soccer players had considerable levels of trust, so much that an outsider could be an insider by the end of two hours.
What I have found is that I am not alone in this experience, soccer players in cities use soccer as a way to meet new people and feel a sense of community, around 90% of respondents to online survey indicated that they had made new friends because of playing soccer. And the thing is, these friendships and social networks that soccer players develop have value that spills out into other aspects of our lives. Indeed, a combined 10% of players across more than 550 survey persons indicated that they had received a job or job interview as a result of playing soccer. Not only are players gaining the non-fungible benefits of friendship they are gaining access to social capital, useful as soccer players navigate new settings.
Edward Painter recently earned his M.S in Geography from the George Washington University. He currently is serving in the Peace Corp in China, you can follow his journeys and his soccer playing experiences on his website, Edwardpainter.com and follow him on Twitter.