By Yuhei Inoue (Manchester Metropolitan University), Daniel Lock (Bournemouth University), Leah Gillooly (Manchester Metropolitan University), Richard Shipway (Bournemouth University), & Steve Swanson (Deakin University)
For this year’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, António Guterres—the United Nations’ secretary general—communicated his belief that “the world of sport has crucial contributions to make in forging a safe and sustainable recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic. That sport may facilitate crisis recovery is hardly a new idea. In past crises—9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, to name a few—sport organizations and their members were said to have played important societal roles (Inoue & Havard, 2015). Yet little attempt has been made to explore “how” sport organisations can contribute to crisis recovery.
The Organizational Identification and Well-being Framework, which we proposed in a recent article, seeks to answer this question. It rests on the capacity of sport organizations to serve as a prominent source of group identity (i.e., a shared sense of who “we” are) for individuals (Lock & Heere, 2017). People may identify with a range of social groups, such as ethnicity, gender, and religion. Yet what makes identification with a sport organization significant is that it tends to map onto other group identities (e.g., sport and geographic region; Heere & James, 2007).
Moreover, once people identify with a sport organization, they gain access to shared resources (e.g., social support, relatedness) that can enhance their well-being (Inoue et al., 2015; Wann, 2006). As such, the central premise of our framework is that sport organizations—where they have capacity—can facilitate recovery from a crisis to the extent that they foster shared identification (i.e., sense of oneness) to galvanize support towards relief efforts.
Roles of identity leadership
We do not assume that identification with sport organizations will always be instrumental in crisis recovery. Rather, our goal is to illustrate how leaders may reimagine their organizations’ in-group identity in a way that is meaningful in the crisis context. To do so, we draw upon identity leadership, which focuses on how group leaders cultivate in-group identity for their followers (Haslam et al., 2020; Reicher & Hopkins, 1996). Specifically, when situations surrounding a group change due to social events (e.g., crises), leaders may create a new vision for the boundaries (i.e., who is included in “us”) and content (i.e., what “we” exist to do) of an in-group to offer meaningful responses to the crisis (e.g., encouraging social distancing during COVID-19).
How leaders define their in-group’s boundaries is important, because people tend to mobilize more resources for those included in the same group (i.e., in-group members) than for those excluded (i.e., out-group members). In addition, the content—or meaning—of in-group identity establishes a common understanding of how members should behave.
Against this background, organizations and their leaders aiming to address new community needs created by a crisis should consider the following course of actions in relation to in-group boundaries (1) and content (2):
- Temporarily (or permanently in some cases) redefine the in-group to include both existing members (e.g., employees, fans, club members) and the broader population leaders seek to support (e.g., all residents affected by a crisis). For example, during the COVID-19 lockdown, executive boards of some British golf clubs decided to open their courses to the public—inclusive of both club members and other residents—to address an urgent community need for safe exercise spaces.
- Communicate a new or updated vision for the in-group to accentuate common experiences or needs shared during the crisis. This applies to the International Surfing Association’s use of International Surfing Day 2020. Through this event, the organization featured multiple surfers who had actively contributed to COVID-19 relief efforts and encouraged its followers to share similar stories on social media. This was a shift from the organization’s past annual celebrations that typically included paddle outs and beach clean-up, rendering its identity content more relevant and meaningful amidst COVID-19.
In short, when responding to a crisis, leaders should try to align the boundaries and content of their organization’s identity with needs exacerbated by the crisis. This, in turn, will make identification with sport organizations an asset that can accelerate community-wide and cross-sector efforts to mobilize resources for those in need.
Opportunities for future research
Some questions remain. For example, what if typical leaders, such as Chief Executive Officers and Presidents, lack experience or expertise (e.g., public health knowledge) in shaping a response to address common needs created by a crisis? Or, should organizations respond to a crisis even if they are inadequately resourced? In the article, we provide some preliminary answers to these questions; however, more theoretical and empirical developments will be needed to refine the framework. We hope our initial theorizing will inspire a new line of research that will further sport’s roles in contributing to recovery efforts for COVID-19 and beyond.
Click here for the full article to be published in Sport Management Review.
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