Senior Fellows Paul Elie and Katherine Marshall moderated panels at the Sport at the Service of Humanity Conference, where leaders in athletics, education, faith communities, and youth sports converged at Georgetown to explore the power of sport to contribute to positive change in the world.
Inspired by Pope Francis, Sport at the Service of Humanity (SSH) is a global movement dedicated to promoting the positive values of faith and sport to unite communities, inspire youth, and better serve humanity as a voice for honesty and inclusion.
Co-sponsored by Georgetown and the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture, attendees focused on three core values—inspiration, inclusion, and involvement—in panel presentations, breakout sessions, and excursions throughout the DC area, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
A Long Legacy
Elie and Marshall drew on a long legacy of Berkley Center work on how sport can contribute to international goals such as peacebuilding and human rights.
The World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), a nonprofit organization housed at the center and directed by Marshall, sponsors the World Sports Values for Peace and Development program.
From 2012 to 2015 the program hosted four international symposia where young athletes, leaders, and scholars convened to reflect on how the world of sports can advance values such as friendship and respect.
The International Sports Promotion Society (ISPS Handa) and the International Shinto Foundation, nonprofit organizations founded by philanthropist Dr. Haruhisa Handa, supported the conferences as well as the Young Leaders Fellowship Program for Sport, Peace, and Development.
The initial work of the World Sports Values program has continued through ISPS Handa, who is a global patron of SSH.
Conference participants considered how sport informs personal development and values, the subject of a panel moderated by Elie.
“It is possible to reflect on the fact that sport could be said to be something like our religion, to have aspects that overlap with religion,” shared Elie in his opening remarks.
Panelists discussed how the rituals of sport can help foster unity during a time when many have lost faith in other public institutions.
“Sports espouse classically liberal values of merit, transparency, inclusion, and fair play that give us direction and enjoyment as human beings,” said panelist Victor Cha, D.S. Song-KF Endowed Chair in Government and International Affairs at Georgetown.
The panel also addressed how sport is no longer divorced from larger social issues, with professional athletes now engaged in political activism on issues such as gun reform and racial equality.
“Sports is culture,” shared panelist Christine Brennan, award-winning sports columnist for USA Today. “The sports section is no longer an escape, but it is a mirror of our society.”
Peacebuilding and Sport
Sport has contributed to society by serving as the focus of various peacebuilding initiatives.
Marshall moderated a panel highlighting the rich array of organizations focused on youth involvement in sports that work to heal divided communities in the United States and other countries, including Cuba, Libya, South Africa, and Northern Ireland.
“Sport is the entry point, not necessarily the endpoint,” said panelist Bethany Rubin Henderson, CEO of DC SCORES, a nonprofit that creates neighborhood soccer teams and sponsors arts programming for kids in need.
Brendan Tuohey, co-founder and executive director of PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit working to unite divided communities through sport, reflected on the potential of sport. Tuohey shared the work of PeacePlayers in Israel, where it sponsors a mixed club system with Israeli and Palestinian kids competing together. Following a major win:
“You could see all the parents—Israeli and Palestinian parents—cheering. You could see the girls, arms around each other, jumping up and down at half court.” he said. “That for me is the power of sport, the power of team.”
Marshall and her colleagues highlighted the enormous potential of such programs, but also the handicaps which include scattered knowledge about what kinds of programs exist and what contributes to success or disappointment. Building a well-crafted evidence base emerged as a vital step in moving ahead.
Acclaimed actress, model, and Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins (SFS’98) joined Lee Reed, director of athletics at Georgetown, for a conversation also focused on the power of sport to overcome challenges.
She shared a story about competing in the 1996 Big East Conference and Georgetown track and field coach Frank Gagliano. After Mullins’ prosthetic legs fell off during the race, Gagliano compelled her to continue running in the meet – despite her embarrassment.
“It was an extraordinary lesson because he did that thing that you need a coach to do, which is to help you get out of your own way,” shared Mullins. “That time in my life was about accepting the challenge of being extraordinary.”
That challenge of being extraordinary will continue to shape the work of SSH as the organization uses sport to overcome personal challenges and social divisions.