On Oct. 30, 2001 — exactly 50 days after 9/11 — then-President George W. Bush boarded Marine One and choppered toward Yankee Stadium. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig had invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the World Series — in Arizona. Bush said no. “If you’re gonna throw out a pitch during a World Series with the Yankees, at this point in history, there’s only one place you go,” Bush recalled of that moment in the ESPN 30-for-30 mini-documentary “First Pitch.”
So he waited until the series reached the Bronx for Game 3. The nation was still reeling. The front page of the New York Post that day urged readers to watch out as the federal government warned of another attack. But Bush believed the symbolism of throwing out the first pitch would prove valuable. He warmed up in an indoor bullpen to make sure he could throw in his bulletproof vest. “I knew,” he’d say later, “that baseball could be a part of the recovery.”
From sports psychologist Daniel Wann’s studies about the unifying power of fandom to French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee and trumpeted the games as “a dream of joyous hope,” many have argued that sports provide a platform for unity. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the scoreboard, the argument goes, so observers and participants can come together around a shared appreciation for competition.
The 2020 presidential election reveals an America in need of unity. This wasn’t unknown. But the results — as of publication, Joe Biden’s 73,865,723 votes lead President Donald Trump’s 69,919,097 — reinforce it. Trump and Republicans remain deeply popular in rural America, while Biden and Democrats remain heavily favored in most urban areas. The result is an election likely to be decided by a handful of electoral votes at a time when hatred has become a threatening political force amid rising polarization and a cultural cold war. Can sports help bridge the divide?
Sports certainly have the potential to unify around a common cause, but another common-sense trope is worth considering: Sports, like a mirror, reflect and influence society. Consider the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement; it both reflects concerns about racial equality and racism while using the league’s immense platform to influence the movement.
Back when Bush threw out the first pitch, the bulletproof vest and the symbolic significance of the moment reflected a society on edge, looking for hope amid fear and uncertainty. Bush reinforced their desires by tossing a perfect strike and awakening chants of “USA! USA!” Along with the standard cheers echoing across Yankee Stadium, Bush’s moment became a lasting portrait of a country unified in its anxieties, yes, but also its commitment to overcome.
“At times of national triumph, we rally around (sports) in joy,” former Bush national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says in “First Pitch.” “In times of national tragedy, we rally around them to remember who we are.”
At this moment of tense national divisions, what can sports tell us about who we are, and who we can become?
Sports as unifier
At their most basic, sports bring participants together out of necessity; if they can’t get along, they probably won’t win. “I think one of the marks of a successful team is that it accomplishes this unity,” says Drew Hyland, professor of philosophy emeritus at Trinity College and one of the world’s foremost experts on the philosophy of sport. He saw it himself, back when he played for Princeton’s basketball team in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Every five years, he gets together with his old teammates, and if the coronavirus pandemic allows it, his 65th reunion is coming up. Many of his teammates lived very different lives after they left college. But every five years, he says, “it takes about five minutes for me to realize I still love these guys.” The unity they built through teamwork still binds them, some 61⁄2 decades later.
A 2016 article in The Guardian by Wilfried Lemke, an adviser to the U.N. secretary general on sports for development and peace, similarly proclaims, “Sport is the most unifying tool for peace in the world.” He cited a German soccer club using its resources to bring supplies to flood-ravaged Moldova in 1991, along with the “Four Countries 4 Peace Tournament” that brought boys and girls from four central African nations — Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — together to foster dialogue and unity through the bonding agent of soccer. “No other social activity brings people together in such great numbers,” Lemke wrote, “and with so much passion and enjoyment.”
This phenomenon is as engrained in America as it is internationally. Also in 2016, shortly after the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49, University of Central Florida professor Richard Lapchick wrote for ESPN about how the tragedy united the city. He cited other examples. Like Virginia Tech hosting a baseball game after the 2007 shooting that killed 32. And how the Saints helped New Orleans persevere after Hurricane Katrina. And how after tornadoes devastated Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in 2011, the Alabama Crimson Tide winning a national title “united those cities like never before.”
“When we’ve seen sports as a unifier,” says Adam Earnheardt, a professor of communication studies at Youngstown State University, “it’s almost always in the aftermath of grief.”
Indeed, sports wield a most unifying power after disaster and destruction. But beyond that, sports’ power to unify is diminished the larger a group becomes. From Hyland’s view, the unifying power of sports can’t extend much further. “It seems to me that it’s inevitably localized,” he says. Meaning, even when sports teams do bring people together, they’re often limited, say, to the city of Boston and Massachusetts celebrating the Celtics.
The obvious exception is international sports, like the World Cup or the Olympics. As recently as September, IOC President Thomas Bach reiterated that “sport contributes to peace by unifying people.” But the Olympics has had its share of political moments, like the near-boycott of the 1936 games in Nazi Germany by American track star Jesse Owens, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos getting booted from the 1968 games in Mexico City for raising a Black Power salute on the medal stand.
“The two are almost forever intertwined,” Earnheardt says of sports and politics. “There’s almost no way to separate them.”
One person’s politics, after all, can be another’s principles. “If we share the politics,” Jackson explains, “we might not see it as political at all.” Similar questions about the nature of sports and unity played out during America’s civil rights movement, when sports were sometimes touted as a way to build bridges. Again, when everyone is equal in the eyes of the scoreboard, perhaps they’ll start to see each other as equals in other ways. But that theoretical narrative rarely develops so neatly.
“There is some, of course, truth to these narratives that sport is a place where you see people from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together to achieve a goal,” Jackson says. “But that isn’t to say that the structures within a society still don’t exist.”
Sports as mirror
In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the nine Black students who would eventually be known as “Little Rock Nine” didn’t even show up to their first day of classes at Little Rock Central High school; the Arkansas National Guard, on the order of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, had been dispatched to keep them out. A few weeks later, then-president Dwight Eisenhower superseded the governor and ordered the National Guard to protect the students, thus beginning the state’s process of school integration.
Most Americans learn this story as a pivotal moment of the nation’s civil rights movement, and sports are rarely — if ever — mentioned. But in the years before integration, Little Rock Central fielded one of the nation’s best high school football teams. The (obviously) all-white squad was named not only state champions, but national champions, with a 12-0 record the year integration began.
But the next year, after the federal government forced integration on his state, Gov. Faubus decided that to fight back, he’d close all Little Rock high schools. As chronicled by Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated, “So strong was the segregationists’ fear of Black people that he and the city’s leaders were willing to damage their own children.”
That included athletics. No school meant no football, right? “To preserve one sacred way of life — racial separation — they would have to sacrifice another,” Smith continued. “Friday night football.” But in one of the great acts of irony in American history, Faubus declared that canceling football would be unfair; “a cruel and unnecessary blow to the children.” School or not, football would press on.
But the lack of classes tore the team apart. Many of the best players transferred or moved, and after starting the season with two wins to push their winning streak to 35, Little Rock Central, just a year earlier crowned the best team in the nation, was dismantled 42-0. “As the team slunk back into town the next day, the people of Little Rock were voting nearly 3 to 1 to keep their minds and high schools closed,” Smith wrote. “The opposite of integration wasn’t segregation. It was disintegration.”
Sports can sometimes have unifying powers, but as the case of Little Rock Central illustrates, those powers can crumble under society’s demands. In theory, the gridiron would’ve been the perfect way to begin the difficult process of integration. And over time, the school’s football team did integrate and return to winning state championships. But even this potential tool of progress and peace couldn’t withstand the pressures of the moment. Because, again, sports reflect society — its values, its inequities, its capacity for excellence and its excesses.
Sportswriter Patrick Hruby has likened them to a “funhouse mirror.” In introducing his newsletter, Hreal Sports, he wrote, “If you’re curious about how the football industry’s response to brain damage compares to the fossil fuel industry’s response to global warming, or how the sports War on PEDs looks a whole lot like the bigger War on Drugs, or 1,001 other ways the sports world acts as a funhouse mirror to everything else, then you’ll like it here.” Sports are not inherently scandalous, to be clear, but many of the problems a society faces are likely to show up in them.
“Nobody’s going to say basketball is inherently racist,” says Hyland. “There’s no sport that is racist in its very nature. But there is certainly racism in sport. And so where does that come from?”
Duel of the Tropes
Hyland grew up as a child of the 1950s in Philadelphia. One of “the first steps out of the racism in which I was raised,” he says, was basketball. By playing pickup games, he learned to judge others by their jump shot. So while he’s seen how the ills of society can appear in sports, he’s also seen how sports can combat them. “I think there are aspects of sport,” he says, “that certainly can be influential in society.”
But society, like Hyland, must be open to that influence for it to be effective. And in 2020 America, openness is not in vogue. Americans are increasingly shaping their interests and personalities to match their politics, with political parties and labels becoming central to how Americans understand who they are and how they fit into the country. People have long derived meaning and significance from group membership — psychologists call this “social identity theory” — whether that’s sports fandom or political affiliation. But increasingly, all other identities are filtered through a political lens.
Even in sports, where part of the joy of fandom is arguing about trivial questions like whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, or who should be the NFL MVP, politics are inescapable. Alabama football fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium might lean red or blue, but on game day, they’re first and foremost crimson. Yet when the president shows up at a game, politics become central. Visiting the White House was once an obvious honor, regardless of the occupant. But over the last decade — and especially since Trump became president — both going and not going have taken on political overtones. Sports aren’t just reflecting society’s political movements and moments; red and blue are increasingly the filter through which fans experience sports.
That was inevitable. In a society where politics shape identity, politics will influence everything — especially sports. Can sports, then, influence politics? “Certainly regions, towns and countries unify around their sporting teams. And that’s obviously got an upside. People work better if they are unified, if they’re cooperative, if they see themselves as a group working for each other,” says David Papineau, a professor of philosophy at King’s College London. But achieving such results takes commitment from the parties involved. Bush unifying Americans behind his first pitch required a collective desire for assurance; unifying behind Little Rock Central’s football team required community support that didn’t exist, so the team collapsed.
“It’s not to say that sport as a unifier is a myth,” Jackson says. “It’s just something that takes active work, and is one of many tools that we have to bring people together.”
The recent presidential election reveals once more a nation torn toward two increasingly distant political realities, with the nation’s shared American identity largely abandoned. Sports can help heal our divisions, but there must first be a will to use it; a call for unity that can be reflected and amplified.
In short, for sports to unify, people have to want unity first.
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