What We Do

The mission of the Sports & Society program is to convene leaders, foster dialogue, and inspire solutions that help sport serve the public interest, with a focus on the development of healthy children and communities. The program provides a venue for thought leadership where knowledge can be deepened and breakthrough strategies explored on a range of issues.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Nelson Mandela once said. “It has the power to inspire.” That, and so much more. Indeed, for more than a century, sport in many countries has been a tool of nation-building, integrated into school systems and urban design, the tax code and public airwaves. Ideas of who we are individually and collectively are developed in the course of playing and watching games. Today, sports is a $400 billion industry in the U.S. alone (Plunkett Research, 2013) and a major cultural force, both reflecting and shaping society. But what are the values we want sport to encourage? The community and human assets we hope they produce?

These questions are central to the work of the Sports & Society Program, which aims to facilitate the most important conversations in sports, engaging change-makers in summits, roundtables and other settings. The program is an idea factory, an independent resource to explore policies, practices and potential partnerships that may address the greatest challenges at the intersection of sports and society. Through structured, balanced dialogue at events informed by the best research, it connect the silos from across our disjointed sports landscape and beyond, providing the opportunity to find new energy and common ground in the pursuit of solutions.

Since the launch of the Sports & Society Program in 2011, roundtables have explored the compensation of and health protections for college athletes, Title IX and the gaps that remain for low-income populations, and the future of youth football. In 2013, the program organized the first-ever sports track at the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF). Nine panels over four days considered the role of the Olympic movement, football’s concussion crisis, the ethics of competition, and the legacies of top athletes, among other topics. NFL legend and civic activist Jim Brown told an auditorium in Aspen, “These sessions will (do more) than anything that can happen in this country to bring about positive change.”

Most of our work to date has focused on the base of the U.S. sports system. In 2013, the program launched the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, a multi-year, multi-stage effort to provide the thought leadership for stakeholders to build “Sport for All, Play for Life” communities. The first stage of Project Play drilled deep on the sport activity of children ages 12 and under. A series of 10 roundtables, complemented by research at an ESPN Town Hall with President Clinton led to the January 2015 publication of Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game, a 48-page report that offers a new model for youth sports in America based on the values of health and inclusion, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children. Since then, many organizations have launched initatives or taken actions consistent with, and in some cases directly tied to, the strategies in the report.

More on Project Play, including upcoming events, can be found at an the initiative’s microsite.

Leaders who have participated in events and panels organized by the Sports & Society Program include: U.S. Tennis Association president Katrina Adams, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, civil rights historian Taylor Branch, Northwestern University quarterback and activist Kain Colter, President Bill Clinton, Google senior executive David Drummond, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Little League CEO Stephen Keener, New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, former college basketball coach Craig Robinson, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, and athletes Kobe Bryant, Mo’ne Davis, Allyson Felix, Matt Kemp, Michelle Kwan, Gary Hall Jr., Mark Messier, Maya Moore, Edwin Moses, and Apolo Anton Ohno. A partial speaker list can be found here.

Media outlets that have written about our work include the New York Times, CNN, NPR, Washington Post, ESPN, USA Today, Thomson Reuters, C-SPAN, The Atlantic, Forbes.com, Slate, the Huffington Post, The Nation, Hartford Courant, Chronicle of Higher Education, BloombergBusiness, CBS This Morning, SportsBusiness Journal, and the WORLD Channel.

The Sports & Society Program and Aspen Institute’s Project Play can be followed on Twitter @AspenInstSports.

To contact us, please fill out this form. Or reach us directly at sportsandsociety@aspeninst.org and (202) 736-2916.