Some people think that sports are just sports. They say it doesn’t really matter. Games are, well, just games. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately as I have been researching Negro Leagues Baseball and its impact on America.
The Negro Leagues recently turned 96, just four year away from an important centennial milestone. On February 13, a brilliant pitcher and manager named Rube Foster gathered together the independent black baseball team owners at the Paseo YMCA and established the first organized black baseball league. Again, the year was 1920. It was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. It mattered.
Many schools have organized sports. They trumpet the value of exercise. Mens Sana In Corpore Sano. A Sound Mind in a Sound Body. While it is inarguably a good thing for kids to play sports and have a sound body, the impact of sports on the pursuit of a sound mind is not given enough focus.
The late Jules Tygiel, a longtime professor at San Francisco State, was one of the people that legitimized the idea that sports were important and worth academic focus. They were about more than just boxscores and eating popcorn at the ballpark. Tygiel understood that they had a profound, transformative influence on society. A lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan, he wrote several books on Jackie Robinson and his amazing impact on baseball and America. He also penned a book called Pastime: Baseball as History that basically looks at the role of baseball in the evolution of the country.
Sports instills key values. They advance the idea of hard work. No one can succeed on the playing field without the practice that excellence requires. Second, they frame the idea of fairness and playing by the rules. Tygiel talks about the fact that there is a moral dimension to baseball with phrase like “unearned runs” imparting a value statement. Third, sports also give us a view of what it means to succeed and, equally, how to lose with grace (as we work ten times harder at the next practice to avoid that heartbreak in the future).
In addition to core values, sports also bring us together as a community and as a country. When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series, a flood of humanity poured out onto the streets of the city for the parade. My school called a “snow day” in October giving students the day off. People left work. They literally abandoned their cars as traffic backed up. They were ensconced in blue. They waited for hours for a just a glimpse.
Similar scenes catch our eyes every day. English Premier League fans shout their guts out for their favorite team. We watch as NFL fans throw their faces in front of the cameras or attempt to break a noise record at the stadium as they scream at the top of their lungs. When you listen to presidential debates or read news articles about Washington, it is all about division and differences of opinion. Sports brings cities together.
Beyond just values and togetherness, sports also have been a force for positive change to society. History is replete with examples and they extend well beyond Jackie Robinson joining the Major Leagues. There was the impact of the Harlem Globetrotters and their success against the all-white New York Celtics. There is the ongoing influence of women’s soccer around the globe. There are recent additions to the Olympics to include disabled athletes. These moments are important. They drive change.
If you love to read like I do, a number of recent books are wading into this idea that sports are more than just sports. There is Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy looking at the geopolitical impact of ping pong during the 1970s. There also is a great book about soccer called How Soccer Explains the World. Franklin Foer looks at the impact of the most popular game in the world (sorry, American football fans) and what it tells us about just about everything. You will love both of these books.
We owe a great debt to teachers like Jules Tygiel, historians like Negro Leagues author Larry Lester and museum executives like Bob Kendrick that understand how significant sports are to society and help people understand and appreciate it. Sports matter.