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Speaker describes efforts to use sports to build a better world

by Richard Veilleux - November 6, 2006

The vision statement for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society is lofty - to use the appeal of sports to "create a just world by eliminating discrimination, hate, and violence, while creating lasting solutions, and promoting healthy development and social responsibility."

Peter Roby, director of the Northeastern University-based center, knows that's a stretch.

But, he says, the 22-year-old center is making a difference every day in the lives of thousands of people.

"Sport brings people together," Roby told an audience of more than 100 faculty, staff, and students on Oct. 26.

"It doesn't separate people. Look at the World Cup. Millions of people, all passionate, all rooting for their country, all religions, creeds, beliefs. But when it's time for the World Cup, all their differences go away.

"What else does that?" he continued. "Politics? I don't think so. The arts? Well, maybe for those people who appreciate the arts. Music? Maybe, but people like stuff I don't and vice versa, so it doesn't really bring us together. Sports can."

Despite the program's name, staff at the center do not "study" sport, at least not in the traditional sense.

Rather, Roby says, it is a social organization that "just happens to use sports" to achieve its goals.

The goals are encapsulated in four primary programs: Violence Prevention and Diversity, Mentors in Violence Prevention, Project Teamwork, and Athletes for Human Rights.

These programs have reached tens of thousands of high school and college athletes, largely through college and professional athletes. Another focus - urban youth sports - reaches youngsters through another set of programs.

"We use sports to make the connection, then bring them along with training," Roby said.

Many young people feel they can't relate to administrators talking to them about topics such as diversity or gender violence, he said.

"But you come into that room as an ex-athlete, somebody who played professionally, and give the same talk - the guys listen. Some of them will stand up and tell personal stories. That's pretty powerful."

Roby says his program doesn't lecture to athletes but instead works to give them the skills to help themselves, and empowers them to help their teammates avoid or extricate themselves from bad situations.

Jennifer Bruening, an assistant professor of sports management and sociology and director of the Laboratory for Sport Management and Sociology at UConn, is the founder and director of Husky Sport, a program that reaches out to African-American female adolescents, and provides UConn students and student-athletes as mentors.

The program, run by student volunteers from a kinesiology service learning class, emphasizes exposure and access to sport and advocates healthy lifestyles, along similar lines to Roby's urban youth sports program.

Roby said the key is to help youngsters early on.

"If you wait until college, it's way too late," he said.

"So much history already exists. Norms have been established. A personality has already formed. We have to start working with them at a young age."

There are more potential Okafors on the playgrounds of America among the 40 million children involved in youth sports, Roby said, referring to former UConn student-athlete Emeka Okafor who excelled in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.

Programs like Husky Sport and the Center for Sport in Society are working to foster those young athletes and train them in the life skills they need.

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