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Let's Play Two

“I’m not much of a soccer fan, but the other day I happened to turn on the Mexican channel and saw this guy Pele score a goal upside down. Then he took off his jersey and ran around the field while the crowd went wild. You can say it’s just a soccer game but man, he lifted up the entire human race just a little bit.”--Fry cook in the film Vision Quest



No one would argue that children don’t ever need to go to school because they were born with a brain which can develop on its own. But when it comes to the body that contains that brain, we act as if it can somehow just take care of itself.


We allow sports programs to be eliminated from our schools at all levels. We force parents and athletes to pay for the athletic programs which remain even though many cannot afford it. We also allow millions of children to go hungry and millions more to become obese. (In the fall of 2010, the high school football coach in the Los Angeles suburb of Temecula said that his biggest problem was that many of his players lived in homes where there wasn’t enough to eat.)


We put up with the elimination of sports programs because we believe that America, the richest country on earth, can’t afford everything. Sports is treated as a luxury we can do without. Music and art programs get the ax with similar justification. Meanwhile, our entire educational system is in rapid decline. Let’s not argue over what to cut. Let’s keep it all.


Sports is not a luxury.


We need to see athletes at the peak of their powers because it brings beauty and wonder into our lives. And inspiration. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team yet went on to become the greatest basketball player of all time. Roberto Clemente, perhaps the most graceful baseball player ever, lost his life in a plane crash while attempting to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Constantina Dita won the women’s marathon at the 2008 Olympics at age 38, a feat never before accomplished by a woman or man that old. The message most of us receive today is “You can’t.” Sports says “You can.” That message filters down to us from the icons we see on television until ultimately it reaches boys and girls just learning how to use their gifts in an organized way.


Sports helps us to overcome the divisions created by history. Athletes of every color and creed have helped to bring down barriers, going back well before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1948. New generations continue to chip away at the legacy of discrimination as they compete as teams and individuals. They compete against each other but their competition is also for something--the stirring of America’s still imperfect melting pot. And the entry of millions of girls and women into organized sports over the past forty years has kept the push toward equality in front of us, challenging old assumptions and lingering prejudices.


Sports pushes us to be more open to those around us. When you go out for a team in high school, you play with whoever signs up, not just with the circle of friends you know from games in the backyard. They may be strangers, they may be kids you don’t like, but you’ve got to put that aside and find a way to come together.


Ironically, the erosion of access to sports comes at a time when participation should be exploding. The March 4, 2011 Los Angeles Times had a front page story that described how computers and robots will ultimately replace all retail employees (ten per cent of the U.S. workforce). A similar article could be written about assembly line workers, middle management, or even software engineers.


We are moving rapidly toward a world without jobs, an era of almost unlimited free time. Will those hours be spent in physical or mental prisons or in the joyful development of our bodies, our minds, our spirits?


Work as we’ve known it is becoming obsolete. We can’t change that fact so let’s embrace it. Our vision should be a school on every block and a gym on every corner. Let’s learn. Let’s play. Let’s get healthy. As legendary Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks put it at his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame: “We've got the setting--sunshine, fresh air; we've got the team behind us so… let's play two!"



CounterPunch / 2013

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