‘Protect sports for social good’ Inaugural Peter Donnelly Lecture in Sport Policy

Parissa Safai

The first Peter Donnelly Lecture in Sports Policy instituted by the Centre for Sports Policy Studies, University of Toronto was delivered by Parissa Safai of York University, Toronto. She made a passionate plea for engaging with various publics and work with one another to make sports for all, across economic, social, and cultural divides, a reality.

Last month the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s Centre for Sports Policy Studies (CSPS) launched the inaugural Professor Emeritus Peter Donnelly lecture series in Sports Policy with Parissa Safai’s delightful, engaging, and perceptive lecture that drew attention to the urgent need for creating and maintaining public spaces for, and public access to sports. Her talk seamlessly drew together her recollections about working as a student with Donnelly and later as a colleague-researcher,melding them with her current concerns. Drawing attentionto the urgent need to ensure that sports was within everybody’s reach, Safai underlined the needfor safe sport, an objective that Prof Donnelly relentlessly pursued. Her lecture served well the Centre’s credo of public engagement: well-research and appealing to sense and sensibility.

The Centre, established in 1999 to undertake research and public engagement on the critical issues in Canadian and international sports, was the only one of its kind in Canada then. In the words of Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd, currently the University of Toronto ombudsman (quoted by Jelena Damjaonvic on the KPE website), “Peter not only set out to study sport but to change it”.Simon Darnell assumed leadership of the Centre after having previously been affiliated as a graduate student and a faculty member.Under his leadership, activities have continued to preserve and build on the Centre’s legacy, particularly in fostering public sociology on the topic of sport and physical activity.

“Engage various publics.” This was Safai’s core message, appealing as she did to activists, policymakers, and academics. “We must avoid operating in our silos—whether theoretically, methodologically, in terms of disciplinary area or area of expertise”. Silos she said keep us from working with one another —as a silo encloses us from one another. If we are to protect sports for social good, we need to talk across the lines and sit with those working on Toronto’s housing and food crises. While housing and food are certainly urgent necessities, so too is access to sporting space.

In the 2020 following a report thatPeter Donnelly, Simon Darnell, and Bruce Kidd, presented to the Commonwealth Secretariat, Toronto had implemented several measures that afforded citizens access to safe space for sports and other activities. This included ActiveTO, a measure to open the streets of the city for free walking and cycling, keeping motor transport out. This was hugely successful in theparts of the city where it was implemented, until with the changing profile of COVID, the imperatives of commerce put pressure on the city to reverse the change. Safai also pointed out that the scheme, even when initiated had never reached the poorer parts of the city underlining the missed opportunities to reclaim safe and public spaces for all.

We cannot continue to accept narrow, limited and enclosed ways of living, Safai admonished., and we must speak to power when there are attempts to normalise such limiting processes. The demonstration of our vulnerability that COVID was reminds us of the significance of, “ the vulnerability of our bodies—despite what some Silicon Valley biohacking tech bros may say otherwise—is central to our humanness and our connection with one another.” And yet the ‘culture of risk’ pervades this society, where tolerating pain and injury is routinely understood as a reflection of good, strong character. So also in the sports world, where every athlete is conditioned to ‘no pain, no gain, no matter what’.

Safai’s passionate defence of those who suffered from income and economic and cultural disparity, and for sports for all, wasn’t just rhetoric, but a considered, well-argued position. That Peter Donnelly had a lot to do with her reasoned defence of the defenceless is obvious, but also noteworthy is the fact that Donnelly’s mentorship and her research years at the Centre have contributed to the making of a grounded and sensitive social scientist; a vindication of all that the Centre stands for, in the words of its founder, to ensure “Accessible and equitable ‘sport for all’; humane and healthy high-performance sport; [and] an educational mandate for sport in educational institutions”. The inaugural lecture served well the Centre’s credo of public engagement.

The institution of a Lecture series in honour of the Centre’s founder is a profound avowal of these goals and a promise that under the mentorship of Simon Darnell, the Centre will continue to advocate for and model the role of high-quality social science research as the basis for strong policy recommendations towards inclusive, participatory, accessible, equitable and healthy sports. By far the most important outcome of this evening was the grounding of a legacy of humane and caring sociology of sport.

The Centre will to continue to expand on Donnelly’s vision and pursue the difficult tasks of ensuring wholesome sports for all through policy research and development and public engagement on sports, expanding the contours of sports sociology. By far the most important outcome of this evening was the establishment of a legacy of humane and caring sociology of sport.


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