Would Alexis de Tocqueville Have Joined a High School Football Team?

In the debate over high school sports, an argument for the power of joining in 

Chris Heller/Wikimedia Commons/Open Clip Art Library

This October, The Atlantic tackled football with a long essay detailing the case against high school sports. The author, Amanda Ripley, recently defended her views at a debate hosted by the New America Foundation. Each side made good points: Sports help kids stay out of trouble, but they also take time away from homework. Students get value out of their sports experiences when schools invest money into teams, but classrooms lose those resources. 

To this point, Louisa Thomas, a Grantland contributor and fellow at New America, brought up an interesting argument: Playing on a sports team can be a transformative social experience that strengthens a person's sense of community.

“We’re a nation of joiners—this is like Tocqueville’s original insight," Thomas said. "This is a country in which people are drawn to teams; communities build themselves. In other countries, there’s a great sense of inherited identity. One of the functions that sports plays is social cohesion, and it’s a mistake to understate how important that can be."

Her comments hint at a whole body of thinking on this topic: Thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have argued that joining organizations and teams is a crucial part of a society's health, socially, economically, and politically. In particular, this is important in America, a large, multi-cultural country with a relatively short history. 

This might provide insight into why some people get so angry when people propose cuts to sports programs. To defenders, the ritual of playing sports often feels deeply American in ways that go beyond the money we spend attending games and the time we spend competing. Whether on the field or in the stands, coaching a team or running the field, everyone at a game can feel part of something local—this team, this game, this town—and something abstract and national—a land where young people are free to run, the home of strong, exceptional, brave athletes. 

When he left his native France and crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed this unique quality of American life that wasn't true of post-Revolutionary France: People loved making and joining groups.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.

The key to democracy—democracy itself!—is for people to join stuff, he wrote.

Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.

For some students and their families, other after-school activities might satisfy this urge to form and join groups. But for many, Friday-night football and Saturday games of soccer are part of a broader spirit of sharing a common goal and being part of a community. That's why as feeble a figure as Tocqueville—who died of tuberculosis in 1859 after a life of health problems—belongs in a conversation about high school sports: Almost 200 years ago, he spotted something about American culture that explains why, for some, sports represent a lot more than just games and jerseys.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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