Paul Nitze: Sports and the real America

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

Pia Sundhage, the Swedish coach of the American women’s soccer team, starred on her own national team for many years. She knows something about sports and national pride. After last Saturday’s American win over Brazil, she had this to say: “Somebody’s writing this book, and it’s something about the American attitude that they find a way to win.”

A stunned Abby Wambach said the same thing: “I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about.” Wambach was covered in sweat, but not tears – she left those to me and thousands of others who spent their Saturday morning yelling and screaming and cheering and crying.

If you saw it, you know what it was – as electric a match as any American soccer team has ever played. Three plays stood out. Hope Solo’s diving save of the first Brazilian penalty kick. Marta’s astonishingly deft flick-on goal. And Megan Rapinoe’s ropeline cross onto Wambach’s forehead in extra time.

Members of American soccer royalty got the same rush. New York Times reporter George Vecsey phoned Alexi Lalas in Oregon, where he was doing commentary for a Major League Soccer broadcast. According to Vecsey, Lalas “suggested there was something very American, something scrappy and self-reliant, about that rally.” Lalas hinted he doesn’t usually get too worked up over women’s soccer, but that he and his partners were high-fiving in the broadcast booth after the Wambach header.

We’re so saturated with sports culture and the business of sports, that we forget that sports can mean a lot. It can tell us about who we are and where we’re headed. Contrast the incessant Nike commercials featuring the American team, which played during the breaks, with the reality of what took place on the field. Most of our best books about sports tear down mythologies – they don’t venerate.

Which is why my favorite sports book is “Beyond a Boundary,” a story about cricket in the British West Indies, written by a cranky black nationalist named C.L.R. James. It’s set in James’s birth country, Trinidad (coincidentally the country the American men defeated in 1989 to qualify for their first modern World Cup).

I knew zilch about cricket when I started the book, and I still didn’t understand how to play it after I finished the book. What you learn instead is how cricket helped transform Trinidad from a segregated colony into an independent, integrated nation. An alien game imported by the colonizer became a means of liberation.

The story of how colonial subjects used British values against the British empire is an old one, and I won’t retell it here. Better to mention the vivid portraits that James paints of the best West Indian players, men like Wilton St. Hill, Frank Worrell, and Sir Learie Constantine, greatest of them all. Also the descriptions of the venerable cricket clubs, all limited by class and race.

James’s story is set in a tiny country during the decades leading up to independence. Cricket wasn’t a symbol of political struggle – it was the struggle. The greatest cricketers, like Constantine, were also political leaders and advocates. Wins or losses by the national team advanced or delayed independence. When Frank Worrell was left off the national team it sparked a riot and mass protest.

James mentions that toward the end of his life, when he was a respected scholar in London, other academics could not figure out his obsession with cricket. “A professor of political science publicly bewailed that a man of my known political interests should believe that cricket had ethical and social values. I had no wish to answer. I was just sorry for the guy.”

We are a much bigger country than Trinidad and if we do have a national game, it isn’t soccer. But our politics are increasingly desperate, and James teaches us that you don’t have to invent a game to make good use of it.

As a country we seem to be in a deep funk, governed by a political class that Tom Friedman called a “corrupt duopoly” at the Ideas Festival. We have forgotten that there is such a thing as the American character, and while that character is far from perfect, it is “scrappy and self-reliant.”

After yesterday’s win over France, the Americans will play Japan for the Cup. Japan has its own pride to play for, and may have something to say about American destiny. But whatever happens this weekend, let’s remember the quarterfinal, which wasn’t a symbol of American character. It was our character.