06/06/2011 03:35 EDT | Updated 08/06/2011 05:12 EDT

Harnessing the Power of Sports for Social Action

The sport community is a phalanx of some 36,000 organizations, ranging from big league teams to swimming clubs, supported by an army of highly engaged volunteers. So how can an enterprising politician harness this force?

It's a little disorienting. You think you'll flip on the TV or radio and catch up on politics, but all the usual suspects are suddenly talking sports, from hockey in Winnipeg to soccer in Barcelona.

At one point last week, Peter Mansbridge spent the better part of an hour interviewing sports figures. I had to check the channel to make sure I really was watching The National.

I guess Canadians have had enough politics for now, eh? Then again, if Don Cherry can do politics, why can't Peter do sports? I'm serious. Politics really could do with more sports, and here's why:

When new Canadians enroll their kids in sports programs, the whole family takes a giant step into the heart of Canadian society. When troubled youth start playing softball, they spend their evenings in the park rather than outside the 7-11. When a community starts jogging, biking and skiing, obesity rates and heart disease plummet. When the Stanley Cup finals are in Vancouver, people come to town and spend their money.

In short, there's a lot more to the politics of sport than corruption in soccer, prosecuting hockey thugs or buying votes with a new stadium. It's also about social cohesion, safer streets, public health and, of course, jobs.

Consider Montreal's immigrant community. It's become a huge hotbed for hockey. Cheering for the Habs turns out to be a great way for New Canadians to start feeling part of their city. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

All kinds of organizations are looking to sports to help them build safer, healthier, more prosperous communities. They include immigrant settlement offices, youth corrections officers, health organizations, and chambers of commerce, to name only a few.

So the political story that has not been told is of sport as an emerging force for social action. The sport community is a phalanx of some 36,000 organizations, ranging from big league teams to swimming clubs, supported by an army of highly engaged volunteers, from soccer moms to Bay Street bankers.

So how can an enterprising politician harness this force?

All 14 federal, provincial and territorial governments are now engaged in a two-year process to develop a new pan-Canadian sport policy. A key question is whether the new policy should include a commitment or tools to build new partnerships between the sport community and other networks.

Surprisingly, however, the sport community is divided on the question. Although sport organizations place a very high value on sport's contribution to community-building, they disagree on what, if anything, a new policy should say about it.

Some feel that, however beneficial, community-building is a by-product of sport and that a new policy should remain focused on sport's central goals. In this view, a commitment to community-building might burden the sport community with new responsibilities and costs, which it is not well positioned to meet.

Others reply that, on the contrary, it would bring new resources and participants into sport and, ultimately, make a significant contribution to the growth and development of sport. They think the policy should take clear steps to encourage more partnerships with organizations outside sport.

While both sides are backed by strong arguments, the fact is, no one knows for sure how a commitment to promote community-building would play out. We haven't done it before -- and that's where the politicians come in.

This is an opportunity we can't afford to miss. Sport is the perfect place to test and develop new approaches to community-building. We owe it to ourselves to try. Canadian governments should take up the challenge. They should work together to create a world class piece of legislation that would stand as a model for countries around the world.

This is not only politically possible, it is politically smart. Governments everywhere are searching for new approaches to social policy. The truly magical thing about sport is how quickly people, organizations and governments will line up behind a plan to promote public health or social cohesion, once it has been cast in the guise of sport. When it comes to community-building, sport is our town square.

Finally, let's be clear that this is NOT about getting government to spend big dollars on sport. The whole point is that non-sport organizations will spend their own dollars on sport if it proves to be an effective way to help them achieve their goals. The challenge for politicians is to create the right environment for this to happen. If they do, everybody wins.

Oddly, for all the hype around sport right now, almost no one seems to have noticed that this discussion is even underway. Perhaps there is also an opportunity here for sports reporters.

While Peter is busy interviewing their celebrities, maybe they should convene a panel of pundits to talk about whether sport policy could be the political sleeper of the year.