The U.S.: One Nation, Under Sports

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If you look at the front page of your paper (or the home page of your favorite news site), it’s easy to come away with the feeling America has never been more divided. We can’t agree on the federal government’s role in managing the economy. We can’t agree on what makes an immigrant legal (and when). We can’t agree on the nature of health care, and whether or not it should be an obligation. Then you have the age-old scream-generators: abortion, gun control, campaign financing.

Ain’t it great to be an American?

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As Independence Day nears, though, I’m reminded of the last and best unifier we Americans enjoy year-round. It’s sports. The games our children play, the teams we cheer (or boo), the activities that keep us (well, some of us) healthy.

There’s irony to the unifying quality of American sports, of course. Seat a Grizzlies fan next to a Clippers fan on a flight from Memphis to L.A. and see how “unified” they feel after three hours. But that’s precisely the magic of sports. Two people from two different parts of the world, likely with entirely different lifestyles and daily priorities, who live and breathe over the same series of basketball games. Sports matter.

I’ve seen cars in the FedExForum parking garage with Obama bumper stickers parked next to cars with Palin stickers. For all I know, there’s a red-clad fan sitting next to a blue-clad fan, bound together for 41 games of die-hard cheering ... until election night. (Which makes me wonder: Does Mitt Romney have a favorite team? If President Obama wears his White Sox jersey to a debate, what does Romney wear?)

College football fans in these parts might question the unifying quality of their sport of choice, especially when morons are poisoning trees in the interest of waving their favorite team’s flag. But these idiots are like plane crashes: they steal headlines from the thousands upon thousands of flights that take off and land without incident.

I attended the 2006 induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Took my seat — on a scalding-hot bleacher — right next to a woman in a Troy Aikman jersey (the former Cowboy quarterback was among the inductees). We exchanged pleasantries and the woman introduced me to her husband — the guy sitting on her other side — wearing a Washington Redskins jersey. I’ve spent the better part of six years trying to do the math on that slice of matrimony, wondering how fall can be endured with an NFL Hatfield and McCoy under the same roof. There’s a bonding metaphor somewhere, and it has as much to do with sports bringing fans together as it does love bringing couples together.

My dad grew up in Memphis, a Cardinal fan, and a supporter of Jimmy Carter. For more than twenty years, he lived next-door to a Red Sox fan in New England, a man with photos of Ronald Reagan and one George Bush or another on his office wall. My dad and his neighbor were devoted golf partners. His neighbor — his dear friend — eulogized my father at his memorial service in 2005. These two had reason to shun each other as misguided political enemies. But that would have further spoiled countless walks from tee to green. Sports matter — and they unify.

If you mix and match the colors of the current champions in the NFL (New York Giants), NBA (Miami Heat), and Major League Baseball (St. Louis Cardinals), you get a nice blend of red, white, and blue. Coincidental for sure. But at a time when so many news items divide us, in a year when we’ll have to choose blue or red come November, it’s nice to consider the role sports play in making America a single, unified nation. The Olympic Games open in London later this month, with enough flag-waving to mist the eyes of the most steely of patriots. It’s a degree of jingoism we should let be. For it’s less about policy-making or borders than racing in a pool or on a track. A kind of conflict we can embrace as one.

Have a safe and happy Fourth.

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