Game changer: Stanford scholar shows how soccer can tackle prejudice, bias

Stanford scholar Salma Mousa studies how soccer can build trust and tolerance.

Under the right conditions, a diverse soccer team can pull off the ultimate hat trick: It can reduce prejudice, build trust and increase tolerance among players from opposing sides of a conflict.

Salma Mousa on a soccer pitch

Salma Mousa’s research has taken her all over the world, including post-ISIS Iraq, to see how soccer can transform people’s attitudes. (Image credit: Courtesy Salma Mousa)

These are just some of the findings to emerge from research by Salma Mousa, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), a research program within the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Mousa’s scholarship has taken her all over the world – from an amateur football pitch in post-ISIS Iraq to an elite football club in England – to examine the various ways soccer can transform everyday attitudes between Muslims and Christians, as well its limitations to building social cohesion.

“I’ve spent most of my life in the Middle East and it’s a place where we have a history of coexistence and cooperation,” said Mousa, who is an Egyptian Canadian raised in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Canada. “There is nothing innate in our culture that suggests that we can’t get along and that these different socialized identities between people need to be faultlined necessarily.”

Putting contact theory to the test

In particular, Mousa has examined how soccer can be a useful way to test contact theory, an approach developed by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950s to reduce prejudice, build trust and generally improve group relations through intergroup contact. There are some caveats to make this happen; for example, there need to be a common goal, cooperation, no social hierarchies, and endorsement from a social or institutional authority.

Soccer seems to meet the conditions Allport stipulated, said Mousa, who recently completed her PhD in political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences and was a PhD fellow at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Mousa turned her attention to displaced Iraqi Christians living in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, and the city of Qaraqosh. The area is home to some of the 3 million internally displaced Iraqis who in 2014 fled from the ISIS genocide against Christian, Yazidi and Shiite minorities in the Nineveh plains. Displaced Christians and Muslims living in Ankawa are segregated into camps and residential neighborhoods with little to no opportunities for intergroup contact, Mousa said.

These experiences really hardened group identities, she explained at a recent CDDRL seminar. “It devasted social trust in the area, especially Christians toward Muslims, who were seen as ISIS collaborators for choosing to stay behind. Even if the Muslims themselves were persecuted by ISIS, they were resented for diluting the Christian identity of these towns and neighborhoods, so regardless of the source of resentment, you have a lot of distrust toward Muslims,” Mousa said.

Mousa wondered whether soccer could be a way to build trust between these two groups. To find out, Mousa teamed up with a local Christian organization in Iraq to start an amateur soccer league for these displaced groups.

As part of her study, Mousa invited 42 teams – founded by Iraqi Christians displaced by ISIS – to participate in a 10-week soccer league. Incentives to play included professional referees, reserved fields, new uniforms and trophies awarded to the top three teams.

Mousa randomly assigned Christians players either to an all-Christian soccer team or to a team mixed with four Sunni Arabs – the same ethnoreligious background as members of ISIS. All of the players had similar skill levels, which gave Mousa confidence that any effect she observed was not due to the Muslim players being better or worse than their Christian counterparts.

The first three weeks were tense, reported Mousa. For example, Christian players were reported saying, “We don’t want Muslims; they will ruin the league,” and “We don’t want them coming to our field.”

Slowly, however, camaraderie emerged. By the fifth week, when Christian players learned that their Muslim teammates were struggling to pay the taxi fare from their camps to the field, they chipped in to cover the cost – even though their average household income too was low. By the end of the experiment, players condemned prejudiced speech. For example, when a staff member joked that it “wasn’t so bad having Muslims after all,” a Christian player replied, “Why do you have to think in such sectarian terms all the time; come on, don’t talk like that!”

Coupled with these anecdotal stories from the pitch were further affirmations in the data. The findings, published in the journal Science, showed that Christians on the mixed teams were 13 percent more likely than players assigned to all-Christian teams to sign up for a mixed team next season, 49 percent more likely to train with Muslims six months later, and 26 percent more likely to vote for a Muslim player (not on their team) to receive a sportsmanship award.

But while there were some positive shifts in everyday behaviors between players, Mousa did not find any evidence that these new attitudes generalized off the field. For example, players on mixed teams were not more likely to patronize a restaurant in Muslim-dominated Mosul or attend a mixed social event. Neither were they more likely to donate their survey compensation to a neutral NGO (that serves both Muslims and Christians) as opposed to their church.

Mousa believes that in the postwar setting of Iraq, trusting strangers was too much of an ask. “Christians are a persecuted minority in Iraq, and combined with being in a postwar setting – I think that was just too much. It just made it really hard to overcome that trust deficit toward strangers,” Mousa said.

Matching grassroot efforts with policy

Mousa continues to examine soccer’s saliency in building interpersonal relationships and, in certain instances, across society as well. She is currently examining whether soccer can be used to integrate Lebanese youth with Syrian refugees and has another project in Colombia.

Mousa remains realistic about the extent soccer clubs and grassroots programs on their own can rebuild social trust after conflict. To achieve widespread social transformation also requires shifts in public policy, Mousa said. Toward this end, for her study in Lebanon, Mousa is working with a local school to incorporate a classroom exercise as well. And in Colombia, she is exploring what happens when all members of a household participate in a soccer program.

“You need to combine this grassroots-level stuff with the institutional change – the policy decisions that are actually going to make people think they face and address those structural roots of conflict,” Mousa said.