Sport and the Decline of War

How sport can help the human race transcend war and conflict

Posted Mar 14, 2014

In 1910, shortly before his death, the eminent psychologist William James wrote an essay called The Moral Equivalent of War, in which he attempted to understand the human race’s apparent love of warfare. James argued that warfare was so prevalent because of its positive psychological effects. Put simply, it made people feel good.

One way in which it does this, according to James, is by making people feel more alert and alive. Both for soldiers and civilians, warfare lifts life to "a higher plane of power." It enables the expression of higher human qualities which often lie dormant in ordinary life, such as discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice. Warfare creates a powerful sense of community, in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together and creates a sense of cohesion, with mutual goals. The "war effort" inspires individual citizens (not just soldiers) to behave honorably and unselfishly, in the service of a greater good.

James’ views might seem old-fashioned, based on a romantic notion of warfare which was no longer possible after the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. However, the New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges identified the same effects while observing recent world conflicts. Hedges witnessed the bonding effect of being at war with a common enemy, and the transcendence of social conflict and dislocation. He also describes how war generates a strong sense of purpose and meaning, as he writes, "War is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble."

James’ point in The Moral Equivalent of War is that human beings urgently need to find an activity which has the same positive psychological and social effects of warfare, but which doesn’t involve the same devastation—this is what he means by "moral equivalent." Perhaps disappointingly, in the essay he is not very clear about what this might be. But from our vantage point in history, there is an obvious contender for a "moral equivalent of war": sport.

Sport satisfies most of the same psychological needs as warfare, and has similar psychological and social effects. It certainly provides a sense of belonging and unity. Fans of soccer, baseball or basketball teams feel a strong sense of allegiance to them. Once they have formed an attachment to a team (usually during childhood) they "support" it loyally through thick and thin. The team forms part of their identity; they feel bonded to it, and a strong sense of allegiance to the other supporters, a tribal sense of unity. Sport also enables the expression of "higher" human qualities which often lie dormant in ordinary life. It provides a context for heroism, a sense of urgency and drama where team members can display courage, daring, loyalty, and skill. It creates an artificial "life and death" situation which is invested with meaning and importance far beyond its surface reality.

Sport can certainly lift life to a "higher plane of power" too. Watching a major sports match—e.g. a soccer match in the UK, or a baseball game in the US—is an empathic, rather than a passive experience. It is an experience of complete, passionate engagement, generating powerful emotional responses. (Although admittedly, this may partially depend on how exciting the game is.) At the end of the game, the spectator often feels emotionally drained, in a mood of euphoria or desolation (depending on the result).

The Decline of Warfare 

If sport is a "moral equivalent of war" then it should be able to serve as a substitute for it, and to bring about a decline in warfare. Is there any evidence for this?

There are both small scale and large scale examples. In the second half of the 19th century, my home city of Manchester, UK, was gripped by an epidemic of youth gangs and knife crime. Large parts of the city were unsafe, as pedestrians could easily be caught up in fighting, and were often randomly attacked. But during the 1890s, a small number of enlightened people realized that the youths needed to be offered other outlets for satisfying their psychological needs other than gang membership and violence. They set up "working lads" clubs’ throughout the city, which gave the poorest slum youths access to sport and recreation. This led to a new "craze" for football (soccer) that spread rapidly through the city. (Indeed, it was during this decade that Manchester’s two famous modern soccer teams—Manchester United and Manchester City—were originally established.) As a result, youths who had previously fought against each other in gangs were soon "fighting" each other in football teams, both in "street football" and in organized games through the lads’ clubs. This suggests that the psychological needs which had given rise to gang membership and conflict, were now seemingly being channeled into sport—bringing a massive reduction in actual conflict and violence.

The same principle has been applied in the modern world too. In Columbia and Brazil, for example, the promotion of soccer in areas of high gang activity has led to a significant reduction in crime and violence.

On a global scale, the last 75 years have seen a steady ongoing decline in the number of deaths due to group conflict in the world as a whole (Human Security Report Project, 2006). Since the Second World War, there has been a massive reduction in international conflict (sometimes referred to as "The Long Peace"). In particular, the last 25-30 years have been by far the least war-afflicted in recent history, and have seen a correspondingly low number of casualties (Global Conflict Trends, 2014).

Why has the world become more peaceful? It may be partly due to the nuclear deterrent, the demise of Communist Bloc, increased international trade and commerce, the growth of democracy, the work of international peacekeeping forces, and increased interconnection between people of different nations. But sport is most likely an important factor too. It’s surely not a coincidence that, over the 75 years of this steady decline in conflict, sport has grown correspondingly in popularity. The excitement and intoxication which was once derived from warfare can be gained from from national and international sporting competitions, from following your country at the Olympics or the Soccer World Cup. The sense of belonging and allegiance to your army comrades or the sense of togetherness of being a nation at war can now be gained through supporting your baseball club. The heroism and loyalty or feeling of being "more alive" on the battlefield can be gained from the athletic or football field.

This shows how essential it is for sport to be promoted in the world’s conflict zones. It shows how important it is for governments—and other organizations—to make sport more accessible and attractive to young people, particularly in areas of social deprivation, where gang membership flourishes. And it also shows that William James was right—war and conflict aren’t natural or inevitable, and can be transcended.

References: Global conflict trends, 2014. Measuring systemic peace. 

Human security research project, 2006. Human security brief, 2006.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and Back to

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