At Yale, we jeer at Harvard in the same way that Bostonians do the City of Angels; that Yankees do the Red Sox; and that Blue Devils do the Tar Heels.
Each pair is a rivalry of equals that takes part in healthy competition that channels energies into a constructive pursuit. Athletic competition between these teams and their fans demonstrates how individualism and community can be synthesized and totalized within a nation to preserve the republic.
The idea of America requires that this sense of communal pursuit be maintained; American Exceptionalism cannot function without it. And athletics bring it to the fore and take it to degrees unparalleled.
USA 4, USSR 3; Jesse Owens 1936; Dream Team 1992; Air Jordan; Lance Armstrong; Ted Williams; the champion marble player. On fields domestic and foreign, when our teams wins, we celebrate with a ticker-tape parade. And our nation is the more united for it.
Baseball, above all other sports, reveals this nation-building phenomenon. “Field of Dreams” (1989), starring Kevin Costner as the all-American farmer and baseball aficionado, best expresses the spirit of our national pastime — but only shows about five minutes of actual baseball. “Actual baseball” includes any scene with a glove, ball or bat. It doesn’t matter. Baseball is bigger than baseball — and the success of movies like “Field of Dreams” reveals how indelibly the sport has marked our society. At times, the nation and the sport seem inseparable.
The politician; the scholar; the businessman — in America, Everyman plays baseball and plays it hard, develops hand-eye coordination, a sensitivity to beautiful sounds and smells, and an appreciation for the difficulty of the double play. With each game, Everyman comes to understand patience and the art of storytelling — no game is ever the same as the one before.
“Field of Dreams” famously ends with a scene in which Ray Kinsella asks his father for one last father-son catch before receding into the great beyond.
“Hoosiers,” “The Natural” and “Mighty Ducks II” all end with similar motifs — the beauty of a sport set within the context of family. Together, they buttress American systems of value.
Whether it’s about Michael Jordan, who cried after winning his third NBA championship shortly after the death of his father; Brett Favre, who tossed four touchdowns on Monday Night Football the week after Big Irv’s death; Ken Griffey Jr., who memorably warmed up with his father in right-centerfield of Safeco Field; Derek Jeter, whose parents can always be found cheering for their son in the stands of Yankee stadium — the story of sports in America is really just the story of family.
Yet, recently, the institution has been corrupted from the inside. From steroid abuses to the Mitchell Report; from allegations that the Patriots taped their opponents’ private practices to the until-recent silence regarding Olympics-host China’s human rights violations; from NBA owners who threaten to move their team at the slightest prompting to illegal recruiting tactics that have seen scores of NCAA coaches fired or banned — the scandals surrounding athletics form a silent epidemic that is slowly destroying our country’s future.
That same demon in sports has climbed into the Ivy Tower.
Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker has been reprimanded for lowering admissions standards to allow greater recruitment at the expense of an academic meritocracy. The story was covered in the News’ Sports section and the New York Times, but little has been mentioned in its wake. It should have been printed on the front page. Above the fold. But I guess that area is reserved for more important stuff than the founding pillars of our national character. Like an ex-governor’s sexual escapades.
Yesterday, Kansas and Memphis squared off for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. No steroid scandals came to light; none of the players has yet cashed in for an NBA-sized paycheck; many of them will go pro in something other than basketball. Each of these teams entered the final on the backs of other champions who wanted to win as much as they.
Yesterday, these two teams competed for glory and, in doing so, perpetuated the central cultural values of our nation. Together, they enter the record books. But many of us didn’t even watch. We went to debates and meetings or wrote papers in Grand Strategies of Powers.
Next year, I encourage you to close your books on the night of the NCAA championship, turn to CBS and watch players our age compete for American honor. Tomorrow, I encourage you to volunteer in a youth baseball league, to help coach basketball at a local school or to otherwise propel our national interest in healthy competition. By competing, sports teams bring together our republic and strengthen our national unity.
Adam Hirst is a sophomore in Branford College.