“All we have is us!” Changing Lives with Football & Social Capital

In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how the The River Rouge high school football team has developed social capital to achieve both on the field and in the classroom.

Just south of Detroit, in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work together. Head coach Corey Parker has The River Rouge Panther high school football team focused on a vision and committed to each another.

How are the Panthers defying the odds? Why are these young men achieving academically when roughly a third of their peers won’t even graduate? How did coach Parker change the culture of the football team? Social capital.

How Social Capital Transforms Lives

Why do some schools do better than others? That was the simple question that sociologist James Coleman wanted to answer. The intuitive answer to this question was, money. It would make sense that schools with fewer resources would have lower educational outcomes (e.g. low grades, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates). However, in 1966 Coleman published a study which suggested that the amount of money a school had to spend on it’s students had only a modest impact on student outcomes (e.g. graduation rates, GPA, etc.)[1]. So if not money, what else could explain school success? Coleman believed that differences in school performance were due to differences in social capital.

Social capital is a resource that people gain from being a part of a community (or what sociologists call a social network). Just like financial capital (i.e. money) social capital makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. Unlike money, social capital cannot be individually owned, but rather it only exists in the connections between people.

Coleman (1988) believed that when people in a social network establish relationships built on trust and reciprocity (i.e. give and take), the network as a whole was better able to achieve it’s collective goals because the community is better able to communicate a collective vision to every member in the network. A “collective vision” might sound fancy in the abstract, but a real world example will show you how ordinary such visions can be.

Listening to coach Parker you can hear the collective vision he instills in his students. Academics above football. Going to college is expected of you. I am committed to you. We are committed to each other. When asked by reporter Dustin Dwyer if football was just a game, coach Parker laid the team’s collective vision out plain.



  • “Oh, no way,” he says, laughing. “No way. Football around here is a tool. It’s a vehicle. It’s a backbone, if you’ve never had it. If no man has ever told you that they love you. It’s a good, strong backbone to let you know you are good enough, you are strong enough, you are smart enough to do anything you want in this world. To have vision, to have foresight, to have dreams. … That’s what football is.”

It should be clear by now that the power of social capital is not in the collective vision, but in the social norms it creates. If one of the River Rouge players starts slacking off in class, coach Parker and the rest of the Panthers will call them out. Or to put that in sociology-speak, any deviation from the collective social norms will receive sanctions from the rest of members of the social network. But why does the threat of sanction (i.e “getting called out”) inspire River Rouge students to comply with the rules? The simple answer is love.

Coach Parker and his young men have established trust and reciprocal relationships with one another. The Panthers can trust one another to show up every day for practice and to take it seriously. They can trust that if they are struggling, they can go to one another for support. They give their time and heart to one another because they trust that others will do the same for them. When a social network establishes trust and reciprocity, individual members feel committed to the whole and the sting of being called out for breaking the rules. Simply put, we follow the collective norms when we feel committed to the people in the network.

Coleman (1988) argued that if schools can establish trust and reciprocal relationships between students and teachers, between teachers and parents, and between teachers and administrators collective visions would take hold and academic success would be more likely. But we should be careful not to take his ideas too far. Social capital can help a school overcome tough circumstances, but those same circumstances make it harder for trust and reciprocal relationships to be established. Crime, poverty, and other structural factors can shred social bonds and create distrust amongst a community.

Social capital may help communities “do more with less” as the saying goes, but there is no evidence to suggest that social capital can erase educational inequality. If anything, the Panthers success should leave us asking, “how much more could our schools accomplish if they had both the social and financial resources they needed?”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Some people read Coleman’s work and say, “school funding doesn’t matter. Poor performing schools just lack social capital and developing that is free.” What would you say to a person who makes that argument?
  2. If we take Coleman to be saying that, “money doesn’t matter,” then wouldn’t that be an argument for equalizing the amount of resources each school has in the U.S.? If money doesn’t matter, then wealthy schools should have no problem taking a cut in resources, right? What do you think of this logic and what do you think would happen if a wealthy school was asked to give up some of it’s resources to a poorer school?
  3. Imagine that your parent says to you, “I’m not mad at you for breaking the rules. I am just disappointed in you.” How would you feel? Now imagine that a complete stranger says the exact same thing to you. Why would it hurt more if your parent said this to you? Explain your answer using Coleman’s theory of social capital.
  4. Think of a time you were in a tight knit social network like a team, a class, or any other social group. What was the collective vision that emerged within that group and what social norms (or rules) did that vision establish?

References:

  • Coleman, James S. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity Study (EEOS), 1966: Version 3. Retrieved December 27, 2014 (http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/06389).
  • Coleman, James S. 1988. “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.” American Journal of Sociology 94:95–120.
  • Kozol, Jonathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. 1st edition. New York: Crown.
  • Kozol, Jonathan. 1995. Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. 1 edition. New York: Crown.

  1. Many sociologists have disagreed with Coleman’s findings (e.g. Kozol 1991; 1995). Arguing that funding does impact school performance and that regardless it is unethical to spend far more on the education of some children at the expense of others.  ↩