Beyond Competition: Creating Community through Sports


By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the value of sports in our culture. She, like many, believes that sports are often overrated, unimportant, barbaric meatheads getting much more attention and money than they deserve, who will do anything within their power to “win at all cost.” As someone who’s watched and played sports all of my life, this was frustrating because, to me, sports are so much more. The conversation started to heat up, so we wisely changed the subject.

But the idea of sports being irrelevant kept circling my mind. Are sports important?

My answer: absolutely. In fact, I would argue that not only are sports important, they are a reflection of our world.  And being a reflection of our world, perhaps we should take a closer look.

Sports teach us how to work with others as a team to achieve goals and how to lead, they teach camaraderie and create lasting friendships, they teach us the value of discipline and work hard, they teach integrity and internal strength — getting up after being knocked down, and one of the most important lessons — win or lose — the value of being a good sport.

At a bare minimum, sports clearly provide all of us with entertainment. As an audience member at a recent Rose City Rollers bout, I was reminded of how powerful sports are in our community and how fun they are to watch. Being part of the crowd cheering, becoming outraged at certain calls, the palpable thrilling tension in the air as the clock runs down and there’s only a few point spread — it’s all part of sport. It’s actually life in motion in the form of sport without any filters; it’s simple, raw and real.

Sports bring community together. For example, at the end of each bout in roller derby, win or lose, the crowd gathers around the track and each team skates around giving high fives to the entire crowd accompanied with big thanks yous. This is not only a way for each team to say thank you to the fans, but it gives fans a chance to say thank you to the players for what they bring us.  A similar tradition also exists in soccer.

For our local LGBTQ community, evidence of sports being a vehicle for community is everywhere. We have the Rose City Softball Association, NetRippers Football Club, Portland Gay Basketball Association, women’s full contact football (Fighting Fillies, Portland Shockwave), Portland Frontrunners, etc.  All of these are LGBTQ sports organizations that continually bring people together.

What’s challenging, it seems, is that somewhere along the way we lost sight of what is truly important — the idea that sport is really just a vehicle for expression, experience and community. We have made the “sport” the end all be all, where winning is so much more important than almost anything. We embrace Vince Lombardi’s idea that, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” as the norm.

When North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il said he was changing the rules of basketball, so many, including myself, had a great laugh. Some of his rule changes were: slam dunks are now worth 3 points, field goals in the final three minutes of the game are worth eight, and a point is deducted for missed free throws. It was hilarious not only because, well, the source, but also just the concept of changing the rules of basketball seems almost inconceivable! How dare anyone change the rules of a sport? (I do like the slam dunk one.)

But wasn’t it us that created the sport in the first place? Again, at what point did the game become so much more important than the experience? As a kid, how many remember making up “sporty” games on your neighborhood streets, literally making up the rules right beforehand? And whenever there was a dispute we all just called out “DO OVER,” and that was that. The game continued and the experience was had. My guess is the actual sport that was played wasn’t as memorable as the laughter, play, and experience had by all.

The sad truth is that more often than not, our emphasis on the importance of being competitive and winning in sports has become primary. Look at the pressure put on kids in Little League, or the parents in high schools that literally threaten officials when they disagree with calls, or the problem with performance enhancing drugs that so many athletes use so they can win.

Sports are a reflection of our world. We have created a world that prides itself on how competitive we can be with each other, a world in which the only person or company that matters is the one on top. Why then are we surprised that the “win at all cost” way of living filters right into sports.

It occurs to me that since we, we as a group of people, created sports in the first place, then shouldn’t we be able to change the way sports are played? Perhaps shifting back towards a philosophy grounded in ideals like teamwork, integrity, play, doing your best, hard-work and — this is a crazy one —  the concept “nobody gets left behind.”

If we do want to change the way sports are played and return to valuing more the overall experience playing sports gives us, we may need be more introspective and examine why winning has become such a dominating construct in our world?

I mean, ultimately, it is just a game, right?

ShaleyShaley Howard is a sports writer for PQ Monthly as well as an athlete, sports enthusiast, and organizer of the annual HRC Women’s 3×3 Basketball Tournament. She is also is the owner and operator of Scratch N’ Sniff Pet Care, which she considers the best job in the world. Shaley can be reached at