When It’s Not Just a Game

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recently I spoke with Bruce van Dyke of WEOL radio in Cleveland  and the conversation really stuck with me.  One of the questions that Bruce asked was how I managed to work both “the Fonz” and Nelson Mandela into the same story in Winners & Losers.

There is a memorable scene from the 1970s TV show ‘Happy Days’ in which Fonzie’s motorcycle is destroyed by Ralph Malph, and Mr. Cunningham tries to comfort the inconsolable Fonzie by saying, ‘It was just a motorcycle.’ To which the Fonz retorts, ‘just a Motorcycle Mr. C? And I suppose your mother was just a mother?’

As I mention in Winners & Losers, Fonzie’s words have been of little use to me over the years when I have placed heightened importance on a sporting event only to have a sports infidel suggest to me it is ‘is just a game’.  The fact is, sometimes the sports world does offer up an event that is so much more than ‘just a game’, but I had always been stumped to respond with an example — until John Carlin’s book on the 1995 Rugby World Cup final that was made into the movie Invictus.

I’ll share with you a short extract from Winners & Losers to finish the story I told Bruce in the interview:

Nelson Mandela’s role in several decades of events before the match and in the events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup itself, gives me all the fodder I need to preach to the sports unconverted.

Rugby in South Africa was historically a sport dominated by the minority white population, and in the days of apartheid the black population would actively root for any national team playing against South Africa.

Mandela had no background in rugby, but while in prison he made it a point to learn as much as he could about the sport.  He also learned to speak the Afrikaans language so that he was ultimately able to talk to his captors and adversaries in their native toneu about their favorite sport. “You don’t address their brains, you address their hearts,” he said.  And Mandela understood the power of sport to appeal to hearts and connect people emotionally and socially in ways that politics never can.

Is there any better proof that it wasn’t “just a game”?

Following our discussion on the Fonz and Mandela, Bruce and I spoke about how sports have the ability to bring a community together like nothing else, which is exactly what happened in South Africa. A good sports team, whether it is a national sport team or a local college football team, has the ability to create commonality between a community irrespective of differing political views or socio-economic situations.  This is one of the reasons that I love sports!

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