Sports & Society Program at Aspen Institute seeks to go beyond the scoreboard
American culture has long had an obsession with sport. It’s a billion-dollar industry built around winning and losing, success and failure.
However, here in the United States there also is something broken about our relationship with sport and Tom Farrey wanted to explore the reasons behind it.
“The nice thing about sports is people get it. It’s not an esoteric topic,” Farrey said. “People want this to be an institution that works — that fits with their family lives. It’s not hard to engage people in this conversation.”
Farrey, an accomplished journalist who worked with ESPN for more than two decades, is the executive director of the Sports & Society Program through the Aspen Institute. One of 60 programs the institute has, Farrey helped start it in 2011 with the desire to think about sports beyond the scoreboard and ask questions about why we do things the way we do.
“It’s all about using sport as a tool to build a more vibrant society,” Farrey said. “This program started in a very organic place. I’m a journalist. I’ve been a journalist since I was 17 years old. All I’ve ever wanted to do was be a journalist and a storyteller. Still at my core that’s who I am, first and foremost. But I realized how important this thing is, that if I wasn’t going to get this conversation started, who was?”
The growth of the Sports & Society Program over the past eight years is evident by its presence at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Aspen Institute’s annual gathering that seeks to delve into society’s most pressing topics. This year’s festival wrapped up Saturday.
Interspersed among the many non-sports speakers this week, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, there were many prominent names from the sports world. This included a presentation by climber Alex Honnold of “Free Solo” fame, a discussion with NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love about battling depression, and a more lighthearted chat with NFL quarterback Matt Ryan, among others.
Farrey said the Sports & Society Program is hardly the institute’s largest, but between its storytelling and media footprint, it has become one of the most prominent.
“What struck me about the Aspen Institute is it’s the world’s premier convener. So Aspen has the ability to reach into some pretty special places,” Farrey said. “As I got into it, I realized how important it was. Just thinking hard about sport and the public interest. And there were a lot of people and organizations that responded to it.”
The origins of the program go back to 2008, the year Farrey published a book called “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” He traveled the word examining youth sports to try and understand why we push kids so hard to succeed in sports from such a young age. His two most pressing questions in the book were about trying to understand the obesity epidemic in the Untied States despite it being a world superpower in sports, and to understand why people, parents especially, “lose their minds” on the sideline.
These were questions that more or less had never been answered.
“It was this huge topic that really hadn’t been explored. It took a lot of research,” Farrey said. “I had some of the answers, from having studied sports systems around the world, but I didn’t have all of them. What struck me was there is no ministry of sports in this country to coordinate sports development like there is in every other first-world country.”
In 2010, Farrey came to Aspen Ideas Festival and spoke about his book. A year later, he helped launch the Sports & Society Program and has watched it evolve into something much larger.
Last week, Ryan, who plays for the Atlanta Falcons and is considered one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, was asked about success and how he defines it.
“It’s marrying up my process and my result. I always feel like I’m successful when my process and my preparation and what I’m doing is giving me the best chance to be successful,” he said. “Success to me is happiness. It’s not always easy to find what makes you happy. Performing at a high level professionally is one of those things, but being a good dad, being a good husband, all of those things are really important to me.”
Ryan’s answer is somewhat at odds with America’s approach to youth sports these days, which puts a premium on winning.
In April, Farrey wrote an article that ran in The New York Times that focused on Norway and its unique approach to youth sports. Farrey wrote in his piece that Norway jumped out to him because as a relatively small country of 5.3 million people it won 39 medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, an all-time record. By comparison, the U.S., with a population of 327.2 million, won 23 medals that year.
So how does Norway do it? Basically, they approach youth sports as a fun activity and not a serious competition. They let kids be kids and don’t put any serious stock into sports until at least the high school level. Still, Farrey said even Norwegian parents can go overboard on the sideline, but their culture is one that has a much clearer line drawn that isn’t to be crossed.
“Human nature is human nature. We all love our kids. We all want the best for them. The incentives around sport success and achievement exist everywhere,” Farrey said. “The difference is countries like Norway, which I went to recently and wrote in the New York Times, it’s more clear to parents that that behavior is not accepted and not tolerated.”
Hilaree Nelson, a Telluride-based skier and athlete for The North Face, talked last week at Aspen Ideas Festival as part of a panel on aging as an athlete. In an interview with The Aspen Times, she joked about the popular quote, “Youth is wasted on the young,” and about how with age she’s put less stock on winning.
It’s an approach that has helped sustain her professional career well into her 40s, and it’s one that could benefit younger athletes from burning out too soon.
“Even if I fail, I’m excited about the chance to be there and to try. And that’s a different attitude I had when I was 25, even 35, because it was all about coming in first place,” Nelson said. “That has changed. That takes stress off of me, which ultimately allows me to be more successful than when I was younger.”
What to do about youth sports in America, if anything, will continue to be a topic Farrey and his Sports & Society Program look into going forward, either through the Aspen Ideas Festival, their State of Play annual report or their Project Play program.
“There is a real vacuum for leadership to ask basic questions like, ‘Why are we doing sports in this country? What should we be investing in?’” Farrey said about having the Sports & Society Program lead the charge. “This is kind of exactly the path, the vision and the theory of change that coalesced the first couple of years in the program.”
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