More than a Game: The Nexus of Sport and Human Rights

By Eli A. Wolff and Mary A. Hums, Institute for Human Centered Design

When people think about sports, they are often captivated by the glitz and glamour of the game. A growing community of advocates, educators, athletes, and scholars are building awareness that sport is more than just entertainment. Sport is a central part of our global society and therefore should uphold human rights standards.

People all over the world live and breathe sports, so to remove human rights from the equation underestimates their importance.  Despite the fact that athletes and teams are often raised to the level of celebrity, this does not mean they should “get a pass” from addressing human rights concerns. In fact, because of their influence, those who organize and participate in sports should be even more accountable to human rights standards. They have the potential to be role models for young people and help create an ethical society built on human rights principles.

When athletes act as ambassadors for human rights they exemplify what it means to be great on and off the field. The promotion of human rights should become a part of the celebrated values of athleticism. Currently, however, while athletes are encouraged to support the values of sport—teamwork, fair play, friendship, creativity—many are often discouraged from engaging in public dialogue on social issues and human rights.

Besides recognizing sport as a human right itself, sports are also a platform for promoting and raising awareness about all human rights concerns. The same human rights violations that happen within the sports world—discrimination, violence against women, and denial of children’s rights—impact society at large. Sports events, teams, administrators, and athletes can use their platform to share information and educate the world on human rights.

Three United Nations international treaties—the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—clearly articulate the right to sport, recreation, physical activity, and play. These international documents make room for international, national, and local sports organizations to embrace the fight for human rights.

In 1996, following a close collaboration with the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added a new principle to its Fundamental Principles of Olympism, stating, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Just recently, the IOC began requiring cities bidding to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games to clearly explain how they will deliver and implement this human rights principle in practice.

But the nexus between sports and human rights must be more than words on paper. Instead of seeing human rights as a topic to cover up or hide away when talking about sports, let’s move into a new era where human rights are truly a part of the strategy, part of the conversation, part of the fabric of how we act.

We will kick off that conversation at the Human Rights Summit on December 9-10 in the panel, “Not Just a Game: Can Sports be a Vehicle to Advance Human Rights?” It’s an opportunity to truly integrate the dialogue on sports and human rights. Hope to see you there!

Eli A. Wolff is the Director of the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design and the Co-Director of the Royce Fellowship for Sport and Society at Brown University. He will be a panelist at this year’s Human Rights Summit. Tweet at him about this post via @eliwolff10

Mary A. Hums is a Professor of Sport Administration at the University of Louisville and Senior Research Fellow for the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design. Tweet at her about this post via @mahums


Published on November 14, 2014


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