Creating Community Through Sports Participation

SP2 Logo Tagline 1 Final BlackRobert Putnam proclaimed in his 2005 book Bowling Alone that social capital is dying. One of his leading examples is the steady decline in bowling league membership since the 1980s. According to Putnam, this decline signifies a loss of community as well as a loss of social interaction facilitated by involvement in sports.

A 2014 study by the Sports Industry Association revealed that there has been a significant decline in the number of children participating in sports across the United States. In inner cities where school funding and resources are scarce, the burden has fallen on the non-profit sector to provide recreation and organized sports to youth. This has led to a number of individuals with deep pockets and non-profit organizations which have attempted to fill this gap.

Non-profit organizations sponsored by athletes and community groups have sprouted across the nation with the mission of building community and promoting sports among children. But the success of these programs is not guaranteed, and requires the community’s investment and trust in the organization since they are working with the community’s most precious resource, their children.

One organization that is working on the front line to get inner city youth involved in sports is Snider Youth Hockey. Started in 2006 by Ed Snider, the organization has grown to serve more than 3,000 youths ages 5-18 across Philadelphia each year. Scott Tharp, the President and CEO of Snider Youth Hockey, said that his first step in creating a free youth hockey program for underprivileged children in Philadelphia was to hold a number of town hall meetings.

“The point was to gauge what was truly needed in the community before they could start to create the program,” Tharp said. “What the community was really concerned about was eliminating the high drop-out rates.”

Snider Youth Hockey created a program that combined academic support, community service and hockey instruction. The program was provided free of charge to over 3,000 young men and women at seven locations throughout Philadelphia. In return, the organization asked that participating athletes volunteer at least ten hours a year, emphasizing service and civic engagement while providing an outlet to give back to their communities.

Snider Youth Hockey utilizes a community-based approach and requires a 2-to-1 ratio of hours spent in academic support programming to time on the ice. Based on their 2014 annual report, 99 percent of participants graduate from high school and 85 percent go on to some sort of post-secondary education. Many of these students come from schools where 50 percent or less of the students graduate high school, and even fewer make it to college.

What is social capital and why is it so important?

Putnam defines social capital as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action.”

Individuals with greater social capital in at-risk neighborhoods are far less likely to drop out of school. They are also more likely to feel connected to the community and actively engage in volunteer activities.

So what do sports have to do with it?

The idea of sports as a mechanism to promote social capital has been present since the early 19th century. Recent studies have shown that participation in youth sports is a predictor of higher income in adulthood due to the relationship between economic, social, cultural and physical capital. A 2007 study out of Canada found that there is a positive correlation between those involved in sports and lifetime volunteerism; sports inherently helps children socialize and form relationships. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, indicated that older youth involved in sports scored high on the social capital index, and were more likely to continue to be active in their community and volunteer over their lifespan.

The research pointing to childhood participation in sports is overwhelmingly positive, showing a potential for greater outcomes socially, culturally, economically and physically. A 2007 study of 12,387 individuals across Canada found that those who had participated in youth sports were overrepresented in the higher income categories, attainment of post-secondary education, and within the workforce as opposed to adults who had not participated in youth sports.

Organizations like Snider Youth Hockey show youth the importance of active participation in their communities at an early age. Through volunteerism and sport, bonds are built within neighborhoods that help lead to greater social capital. Programs such as Snider Youth Hockey help create a brighter future for the most vulnerable youth.

Screenshot 2016-02-24 16.28.30Maxwell Wagenknecht is an Advanced-Standing MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. He is pursuing a macro concentration and is interested in child welfare policy and research. Max is an intern at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research, and serves as a graduate social work volunteer for the UCC health clinic through the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a group facilitator for the Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia. In his free time, Max enjoys watching football, working out, and riding his bike.

This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.