Social Studies Opinion

An Unlikely Tool Can Help Students Understand the Russia-Ukraine War: Sports

Three strategies for helping students make sense of Russia’s invasion
By Anne-Lise Halvorsen, Donald R. McClure & Jacinda Bowman — March 17, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of the colors of the Ukrainian flag superimposed over sporting equipment.
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“Why are Ukraine’s neighbors Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland part of NATO but Ukraine is not?” “What are sanctions? Will they work?” “What is Putin thinking?”

These are questions kids are asking as they try to make sense of the horrors in Ukraine in an already complex world, amid an ongoing pandemic, racial injustice, and school shootings. Some children are turning to TikTok for answers about the war, getting bombarded with disinformation. Others are simply tuning out.

From our perspectives as scholars, parents, and educators, we believe that engaging students in understanding the human devastation and political impact of any war is vital for their development as global citizens. The challenge is how to do that. We have found that an interest in sports is a powerful tool to capture kids’ attention, deepen their knowledge, and encourage them to take action. While sports is often considered “neutral” conversation territory on par with discussing the weather, it can be a lever for helping young people make sense of the complexities of war. With the human stories of athletes involved, sports can be effective even for kids who do not generally care about sports.

Two of us (Halvorsen and McClure) are education scholars who have been studying the intersection of sports and citizenship. We have noted the power of sports controversies to engage youth in understanding tensions among values such as justice, liberty, privacy, and equality. As a middle school teacher, another of us (Bowman) has experience responding to students’ questions and concerns about the humanitarian crises resulting from the war. Bowman also teaches Halvorsen’s son Spencer whose interests in both sports and global events inspired this essay.

Together, we have developed three strategies for teachers and parents to harness in helping students understand the background of this horrific war:

1. Mapping NATO.

As students watch and read the news, they may hear the acronym NATO without understanding its meaning. Yet they have no doubt heard of countries inside and outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from having watched international competitions such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Leveraging their knowledge of European countries from sports could help engage them in understanding the European Union and NATO. We recommend NATO ON THE MAP, an interactive website that allows viewers to see which countries are in NATO and to click on each country for more information about their history with NATO.

Inquiry questions include: What is NATO? Why was it founded? Which countries belong to NATO and why? What is NATO’s power against Russia?

2. Exploring sanctions.

As countries both within NATO and beyond impose severe economic sanctions on Russia, teachers can leverage students’ existing knowledge of figures in sports to put a human face to the measures. For instance, fans of the Chelsea Football Club might have heard that the British parliament has imposed sanctions on the club’s owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Sports and economics are tightly entwined, as the recent Major League Baseball lockout revealed.

Challenge your students to ask: How can financial penalties influence foreign policy? What are the differences between individuals’ rights to boycott versus governments’ and corporations’ decisions to impose sanctions? How effective are sanctions in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

3. Understanding political protest.

In the past four years, we have come a long way from the days of pundits telling athletes to shut up and dribble.” Many fans worldwide have come to expect athletes to take principled stances for human rights and freedoms. In educating students about the Russian-Ukrainian War, teachers could draw on examples of athletes and sports organizations that are speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

More broadly, many athletic organizations are working to harness the “soft power” of sports with cultural boycotts to protest the Ukrainian invasion. Organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and the international soccer organization, FIFA, have condemned Russia’s invasion and recommended that Russian sports teams be barred from upcoming competitions.

Studying these and other examples can help kids understand how athletes and sports organizations around the world are using their influence to protest the invasion in Ukraine, advocate democratic values, and advance human rights.

With the recent conclusion of the 2022 Olympics, where Russian athletes were banned from competing under the Russian Federation because of doping violations but allowed to compete under the Russian Olympic Committee, students may already have questions about eligibility of athletes to participate in international competitions. Engaging in substantive public discourse about the pros and cons of bans on athletes from Russia requires knowledge, discussion and listening skills, and consideration of democratic values such as liberty, justice, and life.

Possible inquiry questions include: What is the responsibility of athletes to speak out for human rights? Should Russian athletes be banned from competition because of Putin’s actions?

Talking about war is tough. Yet as global citizens, we need to be paying attention. We hope these strategies help you get the ball rolling in teaching about the war, but the discussion must not end there. Here are some suggestions for supporting the people of Ukraine.

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