are sports good for democracy?

Joey Cheek (age 26), the winning speedskater, has decided to donate his whole Olympic prize to Right to Play, a nonprofit that serves poor kids in the developing world. He also took the opportunity to speak out on an issue. “In the Darfur region of Sudan, there have been tens of thousands of people killed,” Cheek said. “My government has labeled it a genocide. I will be donating it specifically to a program to help refugees in Chad, where there are over 60,000 children who have been displaced from their homes.”

This is just an anecdote about one American athlete who pays attention to social issues and takes action. His story helps to balance all the anecdotes about bad behavior by athletes. But what happens if we move from anecdotes to data? Today, CIRCLE releases two studies on the relationship between athletics and civic engagement. We find that sports participants are much more likely than other youth to volunteer, vote, and follow the news. That correlation does not prove that sports causes civic participation. However, the correlation remains after we control for all the other variables measured in the survey, including academic success and participation in other groups.

This is suggestive evidence that sports makes people into more active citizens. That could be because athletics teaches discipline and teamwork, or because it exposes kids to others who are (somewhat) unlike themselves, or even because athletes sometimes talk about issues on their way to practice.

Today’s release is getting quite a bit of interest. I did interviews this morning for national CBS radio news and local drivetime radio in Washington (WTOP). Also, that’s my hand on the bottom of the basketball.