Skip to content

Unity Through Sports Essay

Still, he waved from a golf cart and stirred a stadium built like a calabash, a hollowed-out gourd meant to symbolize a melting pot of cultures. Acutely, Mandela understood the power of sport to provide dignity and hope in the face of state-sponsored oppression, to undermine discrimination with resistance and to heal and to help unite a society that the racial segregation of apartheid had brutally divided.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela, who died Thursday, was often quoted as saying. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

A boxer, Mandela belonged to a generation that adhered to the amateur ideal of sport, believing it possessed an intrinsic value and offered lessons in fair play, gracious victory and edifying defeat, said Charles Korr, an American historian and a co-author of “More Than Just a Game,” a book about soccer and apartheid.

It was not a naïve view, Korr said, but one that was savvy and pragmatic and rebutted the notion that sports and politics should not mix.

Mandela was kept isolated and was not allowed to play in the prisoners’ soccer league on Robben Island, a harsh penal colony off Cape Town where he spent 18 of his 27 years in incarceration. Still, he eagerly followed the league results and recognized soccer’s value to other prisoners in providing a sense of humanity and defiance.

“The energy, passion and dedication the game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in,” Mandela said in a film sponsored by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body.

Robben Island was also where Mandela reinforced his support for the international sports boycott against South Africa, under which the country was banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1992.

In a sports-obsessed nation, Korr said, Mandela deeply understood the cultural significance of rugby, cricket, tennis and golf to the white minority and how international isolation damaged the apartheid regime’s sense of national identity.

Mandela became a huge fan of the activism of Muhammad Ali. A photo of the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was also smuggled onto Robben Island, further validating for Mandela and other prisoners the value of dissent in sports in bringing social change.

“He definitely believed that sports and politics are entwined,” said Richard Lapchick, who was a leading anti-apartheid activist in the United States and is the founding director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

“You could smuggle in trade, oil and currency, but if you had a sporting event, you couldn’t play in the dark,” Lapchick said. “He realized this is a sports-mad world, and it was the way that people in various countries learned what apartheid was really about.”

On May 10, 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after three centuries of white domination. After his inauguration, he attended a soccer match at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg to see South Africa defeat Zambia. It was time to re-enter international sport, Mandela told the crowd.

Lapchick, who sat in the presidential box, said he asked Mandela why he had chosen to watch soccer — the favored sport of the black majority — instead of attending inauguration parties.

He said that Mandela replied: “I wanted to make sure our people know how much I appreciated the sacrifices made by our athletes during the many years of the boycott. I have no doubt I became president today sooner than I would have had they not made those sacrifices.”

A year later, at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in the same stadium, Mandela made a widely heralded gesture of reconciliation and nation-building that would have once been unthinkable.

Rugby was the preferred sport of South Africa’s white minority. For blacks, the springbok, the mascot of the national rugby team, was a symbol of tyranny. While imprisoned, Mandela said, he invariably rooted for other countries to defeat his own.

By 1995, full democracy had replaced apartheid, and although South Africa had but one black rugby player on its roster, the Springboks played the World Cup under the slogan “One Team, One Country.”

As the tournament opened in Cape Town, about five miles from where Mandela had been imprisoned, he told the players: “Our loyalties have completely changed. We have adopted these young men as our own boys.”

A month later, South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final in Johannesburg. Mandela ignored the counsel of many advisers and handed the trophy to the Springboks’ white captain, Francois Pienaar, while wearing a green jersey bearing Pienaar’s No. 6. On Mandela, an emblem of repression was transformed into something unifying and restorative.

“He told me thanks for all we’ve done for South Africa,” Pienaar said at the time. “I reciprocated, telling him we could never have done as much as he’s done for South Africa.”

Mandela’s gesture would be commemorated in the movie “Invictus.”

“He never showed bitterness; I don’t know if I could have done that,” said Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 world marathon champion, who left South Africa to escape apartheid’s strictures and became a United States citizen. “He knew how pivotal sports were to South African society and how important it was to keep the white people looking forward versus, ‘We need to get out of here; this could be bad.’ It allayed their fears, gave them hope that this could work.”

Mandela later became the godfather of Pienaar’s oldest child. It was sometimes said by prisoners on Robben Island that the thing they missed most was the voices of children. Once on a flight from Johannesburg to London, the South African golfer Ernie Els recalled, Mandela showed great interest and delight in his young daughter.

When he won tournaments, said Els, a two-time winner of both the United States Open and the British Open, Mandela often phoned his congratulations before retreating from public view.

“He always felt proud of what the athletes out of South Africa did for the country,” Els said. “Very proud.”

Of course, the moral persuasion of sport has its limits. Two decades after apartheid, the “rainbow nation” ideal of South Africa remains clouded by unemployment, AIDS and violence. And the country’s most visible sporting figure, the amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, stands accused of murdering his girlfriend.

Still, under Mandela’s guidance, sport became a confirmation of possibility. It was his authority that landed the soccer World Cup in 2010. The world’s most widely viewed sporting event came to South Africa for a month, and as Mandela took his final public wave, satisfaction was surely mixed with farewell.

“In his view, it was validation of the new South Africa,” said Korr, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “Mandela believed it showed the rest of the world they belonged.”

Lapchick said he considered Mandela and Ali perhaps the world’s two most beloved and unifying figures. When told that on the day of his inauguration, Lapchick said, Mandela humbly deferred and replied: “If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is the Greatest."

I am a Baltimore sports fan. I put my heart and soul into our teams. I've allowed my fanaticism to influence — even dictate — major life decisions and have invested more time and money into the pastime than I care to share. I've shed tears over men in purple uniforms who are complete strangers to me. The weight of a Sunday loss hurts like hell, and when it happens on the biggest stage, the pain sticks. Remember when Lee Evans dropped that catch during the 2012 AFC Championship game?

I'm that big a fan — I might even care more than the players. So when someone says "sports don't matter," I must respectfully disagree. They absolutely matter, and here's why:

Tradition. Baseball is America's pastime. Sundays were made for football. Maryland does crab cakes and football, we shout "O" during the National Anthem. Baltimore has purple Friday. My family watches football on Thanksgiving; yours probably does too. This stuff is fun, and these traditions help cast the foundation of our families, friendships and society. A friend of mine was born and raised in North Carolina — Panthers territory, but he's a Cowboys fan because of his father. Ask any sports fan whose affiliation doesn't fit the mold and you're likely to get a rehearsed family explanation that will make perfect sense even if it shouldn't.

Happiness. The next game might be the one positive in an otherwise miserable week. In 2006, the New Orleans Saints gave a spark to a desperate city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. People took a break from rebuilding their lives and celebrated a Saints win. In 2013, the city of Boston and people around the nation rallied around the Red Sox after the marathon bombing there that year; the team went on to win the championship. People turned to those teams as a refuge. Sports are all about moments, and if a game can cheer you up, even for just a second, that's important.

Unity. Sports bring people together across race, religion, gender, geography, political affiliation, sexual orientation, age and any other difference you can name — none of which will matter at 1 p.m. on Sunday. If we are sitting together in matching purple when Joe Flacco finds Steve Smith for a 40 yard TD, we will share high fives or chest bumps or hugs or awkward dance moves. Bald men will have their heads rubbed by the couple sitting behind them, who they just met five minutes ago but have since become close friends with. I've shared some of the happier moments of my life with complete strangers and have connected with people I would have otherwise never spoken to because of sports. Sports are a uniting force, devoid of prejudice. Sports are for everyone.

Many of my life-shaping experiences have come from sports, and I'll cherish those special moments forever. I took my girlfriend to an Orioles game on our first date. I got to celebrate the Terps beating Iowa, then No. 3, a few rows behind the student section with my grandfather; the smile stretched across his face made that moment unforgettable. I get goose bumps thinking about the mile high miracle pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones. I'll tell my grandkids about the time Jamal Lewis rushed for 295 yards. The happiest place I have ever been was Camden Yards on the night of Delmon Young's game winning double in the American League Division Series.

These moments make it worth every tear, scream, smashed object and extra pitcher of beer I bought to wash it all down. Sports allow us to be the most passionate, emotional, opinionated, social and vulnerable versions of ourselves. Those of you who think "it's just a game" don't know what you're missing.

Matthew Pauley is an equity research associate with Janney Montgomery Scott; his email is