From nothing, and with the devoted, committed leadership and support of so many determined men, they had, against all the odds, created a vital sense of freedom among the men on Robben Island through football, and given thousands of prisoners hope, motivation, and a sense of purpose.
—Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, More Than Just a Game
Every time I visit Washington, D.C., I make time to walk through the Holocaust Museum, and every time I walk out with the same sad, dark conviction: that is what humans are capable of. But it is a mistake to conclude (as some of us are tempted to do) that because a destructive political administration makes evil policies, all politics in all times are inherently evil. If politics have so much capacity for evil, they also have great capacity for goodness, when properly ordered.
The same is true for sports. It’s certainly true that the news is full of recruiting scandals or steroids usage or players altering games for betting purposes. Sports are a significant symbol, so Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire signify not just a generation of athletic cheaters, but a wider generation of inflated and fake realities: we want instant success, even if we have to take shortcuts to get there.
But I was talking recently with someone who works in a relatively new sports nonprofit industry, and something he said struck me: he called sports “morally neutral.” He did not mean that sports cannot be used for evil or good purposes; he was arguing that sport—the game, the competition—did not organically tilt one way or the other. As a vehicle, it can certainly be tilted, depending on how we approach it. There is much room in sport for evil, as our headlines sometimes suggest, but there is also great capacity for goodness.
There are common examples of this: Jackie Robinson’s pioneering as the first African-American athlete to play professional baseball, before the Civil Rights Era had really gathered full momentum; Jesse Owens’s 1936 gold medal win in Nazi Germany. An often overlooked historical example took place in South Africa. Before Nelson Mandela could unite Afrikaners and black South Africans through rugby, he and many of his political colleagues spent decades of their lives on Robben Island (comparable to Alcatraz, just off of San Francisco). It is there that—in the face of conditions inhumane enough to garner international attention—many future leaders of South Africa maintained their dignity and sharpened their professional skills by organizing, coaching, playing, and officiating in a highly-structured soccer league. Chuck Korr and Marvin Close chronicled this story in More Than Just a Game, which has also been made into a film.
If we’re not careful, stories like this one can quickly degenerate into utopian ideals or sentimentality. On the island, there was barely enough food, and meals were often taken away as a punishment. Prisoners were physically abused by guards. One especially painful story involved a prisoner being buried in the ground up to his neck, then left to bake in the sun. The guard urinated on the prisoner when he returned. And like every other man-made system, the island of prisoners included plenty of internal conflict, even as they operated under a “united front” rule when negotiating with the prison or outside world.
In South Africa today, high levels of poverty and AIDS still persist, and racial relations are still tense. But real progress that has been made, particularly in dismantling Apartheid rule, and sports continue to play a role in that progress.
One contemporary organization that works with sports to advance positive ideals is PeacePlayers International (PPI). Now doing peace-building work in four countries, the organization began ten years ago in South Africa with the vision that “children who play together can learn to live together.” And so in places with historically-rooted ethnic or religious conflict, PPI places young teammates from opposite sides of the conflict alongside each other for year-long, integrated basketball leagues.
Putting those teammates together will not automatically lead to better local communities. The stereotypes have to be unpacked intentionally. With consulting assistance from conflict transformation professor and ESPN writer Chad Ford, along with The Arbinger Institute, PPI has infused its curriculum with strategies for identifying and moving beyond “self-deception.” Relational or familial conflicts often involve saying, “It’s his/her fault, not mine,” and the dynamics are the same in large-scale conflicts. Neither side really thinks it is responsible for the conflict, even though the responsibility is often shared. PPI is not a faith-based organization, but the approach is familiar: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
As this hard work progresses, players first particularize: that is, they begin to see one or two teammates from the opposite side of a conflict as decent people, but the exception to the rule. But from there, the particular can become universal: if one or two Afrikaans or Palestinians or Catholics are humans—with real hopes and real flaws just like me—then perhaps they all are.
At the centre of it all is the game of basketball—the hook that brings kids in. The young players are drawn to a good time on a basketball court, not to making peace with their enemies. But PPI understands that making the change is arduous work, not some marketing slogan. The approach is decidedly long-term. Many PPI participants spend years in the program as players before eventually becoming coaches on the staff who assist with implementing the program for others. Slowly but surely, attitudes do shift. For certain kids, PPI’s programming can become—outside of family—the most formative experience of their lives.
And the young players begin to understand—just like Robinson and Mandela did—that sport does not have to be “just a game.” Rather, it can be an opportunity to reconcile people—to make the world a better place.