I’m only just now watching the televised part of the Cubs’ recent visit to the White House. I remarked on this before, but it is especially significant that the Cubs were hosted by our nation’s first African-American president – and first president from Illinois since a tall, lanky, downstater named Abraham Lincoln – on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Obama alluded to the appropriateness of talking about sports on the day we honor Rev. King.
He said: “And it is worth remembering — because sometimes people wonder, well why are you spending time on sports, there’s other stuff going on — that throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game and it is celebration, but there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks, and then the city being able to come together and work together in one spirit.”
These are beautiful and true words. In this moment, perhaps one of the most politically divisive since the rupture of the Civil War, sports is one thing that brings us together. As politics infiltrate nearly all parts of life – as they often necessarily do – we need to search out spaces in which we can build bonds across turbulent political waters. Sports can and do do this. Teammates are dependent on one another during games and throughout a season, whether they would be friends otherwise or not. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it often also breeds respect and understanding and even love. Supporting a team brings us into common cause, not only with players who may be very different from us in their religion, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation, but also with a vast network of fans. This larger community certainly contains people who are very diverse but who can come together over something that is insignificant on the surface – who can throw a ball into a basket more times, who can hit the ball and run in a circle most, who can cross this white line first – but is actually deeply unifying. I think that most people crave connection with other people. We seek out similarity and want to share. Sports let us do that in a nonthreatening environment. Because it ultimately doesn’t say anything about your character if you support one team or another (unless you’re a Yankees fan), but it does provide an entry into conversation, into communication. And communication is the beginning of understanding. Understanding is the beginning of respect and empathy. And respect and empathy are building blocks of community.
President Obama continued: “I was in my hometown of Chicago on Tuesday, for my farewell address, and I said, sometimes it’s not enough just to change the laws, you got to change hearts. And sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t. And sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us. And when you see this group of folks of different shades and different backgrounds, and coming from different communities and neighborhoods all across the country, and then playing as one team and playing the right way, and celebrating each other and being joyous in that, that tells us a little something about what America is and what America can be.”
Personally, I’ve struggled at times to justify my interest in sports and the time I spend watching and thinking and writing about games with the obvious and urgent needs of this world for justice and medical care and peace. Who cares what happened in the 7th inning of the Cubs game last night? Who cares if the Illini lost another game on the road by more than 20 points? Who cares that Newcastle United got relegated last season? As it turns out, a lot of people care (well, at least about the first two). And that very act of caring together opens doors to caring about each other.
So in this time, when our nation and our world feels so divided, we need sports more than ever. We need the levity, the connection, the community, and God knows we need the exercise. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the things we care about deeply. As the president said, “The first thing that made this championship so special for so many … is that the Cubs [fans] know what it’s like to be loyal, and to persevere and to hope, and to suffer, and then keep on hoping.” To persevere, to hope, to suffer, and to keep on hoping. Together.
A transcript of President Obama’s full remarks are here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/16/remarks-president-honoring-world-series-champion-chicago-cubs
Photo: Getty Images via Sporting News. http://www.sportingnews.com/mlb/news/world-series-2016-cubs-indians-game-7-wrigleyville-celebration-1908-championship-chicago-north-side/16tbz7wg293s11cgkxat906y8c