Let’s play together

By Westy Egmont, Boston College School of Social Work


The 2016 US Olympic Team included 50 remarkable athletes that are Americans by choice. Having immigrated to the US, they made up about 10 percent of the team and had immigrated from China, Albania, Cuba, Montenegro, Kenya and elsewhere.

Tervel Dlagnev wanted to cry and withdraw from school in the second grade because his teacher asked him in front of the class “Are you dumb?” Born in Bulgaria, intelligence was not the issue, only language. His place on the US Olympic wrestling team followed a national collegiate championship and a medal in the World Championship. For Dlagnev, sports expressed and fulfilled his dreams of integration.

Olympic tradition involves opening the games with the teams parading in alongside their fellow nationals. However, the games always close with cross-national athletes mingling as friends. The reality is that this social transformation is possible in any community and sport is one of the most successful and accessible vehicles for inclusion and acceptance. Normative barriers include a cultural unfamiliarity with organized ‘play’; family expectations on teens working after school as part of family economic survival; failure to understand the announcement of sign ups and cultural norms around inclusion in team activity. While such factors deter many from acquiring peer relationships on the court or field, sports can serve as an accelerant in acquiring new relationships and acceptance.

While right wing and left wing battle over the White House, fans honor David Ortiz of the Dominican Republic who plays on a Red Sox roster with teammates from Cuba, Japan(2), Venezuela(2), DR, Aruba and Puerto Rico. Acknowledgement of heroes from diverse backgrounds opens us to claim our Red Sox Nationhood and fosters a view of America as richer through diversity.

Sports are a seminal intervention, reducing fear, fostering familiarity, and encouraging bonding in a global language. Sports can act as a primary catalyst in creating social cohesion. Agency stories (see Agency section and News) point to successful asset based models of combining physical activity, social experience, and academics to break through cultural divides while simultaneously affirming strengths and enhancing confidence in both the self and in the community.

Soccer gives rise to civic appreciation of new populations in places such as Lewiston, ME, and provides a way of community organizing as we see in Queens. Lowell, MA held its own annual World Cup for 20 teams representing many ethnicity and in Tucson, AZ 5000 soccer players are brought together annually in a Southwest melding of cultures. Adults and youth alike expand their identities beyond their national origin, sharing in community life and acquiring a sense of equality and acceptance. They are able to integrate with their community in ways that their ESL classroom or even their zip code might have excluded them from enjoying.

More research is still needed on social integration of newcomers who participate in after-school programs, adult leagues, Y programs, parks and recreation departments and sports clubs. Given that marginalized youth are at-risk for gang involvement, terrorist recruitment and low academic achievement, evidence based research would help the field understand triggers that impact both engagement and outcomes of various activities with different populations.

At the US Open Tennis Tournament one wall honors 100 years of The American Tennis Association which, like the Negro Baseball League, exemplifies the anti-integration bias of the last century. The diversity of the US, where 27% of US residents under 17 are Latinos, 43 million residents are foreign-born, and urban communities like LA are a mosaic of diversity, stimulates proactive social engagement that is inclusive. The future unity of the nation may come down to whether we can learn to play together.

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