In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Bachman has an interesting piece on “The Decline of the Company Softball Team.” She writes, “the New York Corporate Athletic League … had about 30 teams in 2008. Now it has eight.” The trend seems to be national. “Just 12% of U.S. organizations sponsor a company athletic team, down from 29% seven years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management,” Bachman notes. “The Amateur Softball Association doesn’t track corporate leagues, but says its adult-team registrations in 2013 had dropped 56% in 20 years.”
One could look at this as a lightweight culture story, but political and social scientists are in the business of finding meaning in such phenomena. And they’re right. In a country with abundant freedoms, the choices we make say a great deal about who we are and where we’re headed.
The decline in company softball echoes the findings of political scientist Robert D. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at the increasing dissolution of what he termed “social capital” in America. Social capital comprises the willingness to be among family, friends, clubs, associations, and so on. Through wise investment (not all social activities are equal), significant social capital may enrich national life. Putnam believes that genuine human connections make us kinder, happier, more moral, more trusting, and better equipped to face challenges.
More than that, voluntary organizations offer a distinctly American rebuke to state coercion. Alexis de Tocqueville noted famously that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. … Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more than the absence of what we would call government or administration. … There is nothing centralized or hierarchic in the constitution of American administrative power.” (These days, that quote can feel a bit like the mockery of the ages.)
As evidence of our growing disconnectedness, Putnam pointed to decreased membership in school PTAs, the Boy Scouts, churches, and various charitable organizations. His critics claimed that while the organizations he cited were losing members, participation in new social organizations, such as support groups, book clubs, and environmental movements, was on the rise. Putnam countered with data showing that “membership” in these new associations required far less involvement with other people. The new associations were largely nominal. Putnam blamed the atomization of American associations on the self-directed culture of both Baby Boomers and Generation X. He also blamed the enervating and isolating effects of watching television.
And where are we now? The tedious nihilism of Millennials addicted to the Internet makes Boomer TV watching look like the model of civic engagement. The softball piece is apt because Putnam’s title also came from the realm of amateur sports. While Americans still liked to bowl, he found, they were becoming less likely to do so on teams. One can’t play softball alone, so we’ll probably just see the game played less and less. Which, by the way, might please today’s identity obsessives, who see softball as an expression of sexism.
Bachman quotes one former company softballer on the decline of the game: “We don’t have that connection anymore, that little silly thing you talk about on the side.” On its own, yes, a small thing. But that connection is not so silly and it has been central to our national character.