I am a long-time subscriber to Sports Illustrated. I realize the magazine leans left politically; Rick Reilly’s liberalism is about as subtle as a brick through a plate-glass window. Still, I was surprised to read a feature article in last week’s issue entitled "Everything Is Illuminated." The piece, by Jeff MacGregor, discussed the 15th Asian Games held in Qatar, a sort of mini-Olympics largely consisting of non-Western sports. But the piece, which ran over 7,000 words (10 times the length of this column), was not designed to stir curiosity. It was designed to make a point Sports Illustrated often pushes: Sports can unite us, superseding moral differences in a profound way.
"The host nation receives the greatest ovation during the alphabetical parade, from Afghanistan through Yemen," writes MacGregor. "Folks from the, um, Axis of Evil, however, run a close second. Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria all walk in to lusty applause. Israel’s invitation probably got lost in the mail.
"Watching the close-ups of the teams, you see that each team is made up only of people, most of whom are taking smiling pictures of one another with digital cameras just like yours. Which isn’t to say that ideas and the people who bear them out into the world can’t be wrong or even evil but rather that we have more in common than most of us are willing to admit. And that evil can be, like everything else, a matter of where you’re standing."
Ah, the sweet sounds of moral relativism. People may be evil, but evil is a matter of where you’re standing. Qatar may ban bathing suits and refuse to recognize the State of Israel. Qatari crowds may cheer regimes that sponsor mass murder both domestically and internationally. But that’s all just a matter of perspective. What really matters is that everyone likes games involving spherical objects.
The sports press plays this same tune every four years, with the advent of the World Cup. ESPN ran an ad during the 2006 World Cup in which U2’s Bono gravely informed the audience: "It’s a simple thing. Just a ball and a goal. But once every four years that simple thing drastically changes the world. It closes the schools, closes the shops, closes the city, stops a war. A simple ball fuels the passion and pride of nations, gives people everywhere something to hope for, gives countries respect where respect is in short supply and achieves more than the politicians ever could. Once every four years a ball does the impossible."
This, of course, is nonsense. Soccer, like anything else, can be the basis for politics — common interest is a valuable political tool. But soccer is not all that important a common interest. No long-lasting peace between two deeply divided groups will ever be built around soccer.
What of the idea that sports can, at the very least, provide a temporary respite from constant war-making? Sometimes it can — but respites are not always desirable. A world fully distracting itself with sports is a world blind to more important things. A week’s cease-fire during the Civil War would have meant another week of slaves in shackles. A week’s cease-fire during World War II would have meant thousands of Jews sent to the ovens.
Glorification of sports above all else — sports as unifying factor, bringing men together to celebrate our common humanity — is an egregious misreading of the value of sports. Sports, at the end of the day, are entertainment. Sports may display our common DNA structure, but they surely fail to demonstrate our common humanity — some humans are inhuman. Sports solve no great moral dilemmas. Sports are not politics.
Yet Sports Illustrated and ESPN say that sports transcend politics. One gets the feeling that had Sports Illustrated been founded in the early 1930s, rather than in 1954, it would have run feature articles describing the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany as a celebration bringing people together, transcending morality. Jesse Owens would have been portrayed as just another participant in a greater cross-cultural gathering, rather than a demonstrable proof of Nazi evil.
Then World War II would have broken out, and the editors of Sports Illustrated would have realized that good and evil remain, even after the medals are bestowed. That it takes more than running and jumping and throwing and kicking to unify us. That a soccer ball is no substitute for a common morality.