Eleven score and seventeen years ago, give or take a few days, the United States declared its independence. Breaking away from one of the Great Powers of Europe may have seemed like a dicey proposition at first, but today it’s quite clear that America’s bold gamble paid off — possibly because America didn’t consider independence a gamble so much as a struggle for its own envisioned way of life. As Americans, we have not yet achieved the “shining city on a hill” that we have so greatly longed to attain, but we have come a long way.
The clearest example of our progress may well be our sports. Sometimes we most certainly take for granted all of the building blocks that make fandom possible.
Sports started out as recreational activities — football started as an experimental game in New Jersey, basketball was strictly for exercise — but when professional athletics emerged, they were a shining testament to our economic expansion. Babe Ruth’s salary could only have been funded if his fans had enough money to pay him to play a game full-time. The same applies to artists, musicians and all other members of the vast world we call “culture.”
Ruth’s stardom only occurred because advances in communications had allowed his brilliance to reach every sector of American society. The televisions, LCD screens, light towers and logistical systems that make the fan experience so simple and so enjoyable today prove that life is better than it was nearly 250 years ago.
Moreover, the system of government that emerged after the Revolutionary War embodied freedom and restraint, with the result that government has never attempted to meddle in our oasis from reality. Our politics have affected sports, of course — witness the Texas Legislature forcing Baylor into the Big 12 with the University of Texas when the Southwest Conference collapsed — but not in the same way that Spain’s Franco propped up Real Madrid with government patronage or the Soviets developed a military-athletic complex.
I would be the last person to compare our government to these autocracies, of course; I simply want to highlight that politics are controversial, and without getting into the messy details, nobody in the United States can deny that fact. In the end, sports are for fun, and since the arguments of politics tend to get in the way of that, it’s for the best that President Obama restricts his athletic interventions to throwing the first pitch of the baseball season and his annual NCAA bracket.
And perhaps it is for that very reason — that history of restraint — that our sports have so closely mirrored, and have even sometimes led the way for, the advances we’ve made in culture, civil rights and our development as a modern nation. To say that Jackie Robinson was the sole driver of the civil rights movement in America would be to ignore the efforts of millions of Americans that shared his dream of racial equality, but Robinson’s MLB debut preceded the Voting Rights Act by 18 years and the inspiration he provided resonates to the present day. Rather than government affecting sports, sports can influence the country — or, more correctly, the same forces and broad movements that eventually change government naturally extend to sports as well.
Occasionally, the line between team and country can appear to blur — the Olympics being the most obvious example — but within reason such interplay is cause for celebration. Every time the national anthem is played before a game, its melody reminds us of all the advances and ideals that America represents and, in many cases, makes possible.
So if you have a moment, say a prayer for sports. The fact that sports (sports!) can matter so much to us proves just how lucky we are.
Winston Shi is hoping the government will make a rare exception to propel Stanford football to the BCS National Championship. To ask how you can help, email Winston at email@example.com.