By Kevin Klipstein
Whether or not you agree with him in policy or governance, you have to agree that Barack Obama knows sports. Interviewed recently on the BS Report (Bill Simmons is an ESPN columnist, author and his podcast is an office favorite), President Obama said the following in response to his thoughts on the Chicago Bulls’ prospects this season, “Deng seems more confident. Boozer is in better shape. Derrick Rose has matured.” The man knows sports.
During the interview, the President also reflected on the power of sports. He told a story about when he was touring a base in Iraq as a U.S. Senator, and while in the gym with about 3,000 troops he was handed a basketball. Someone shouted, “take a shot,” so he turned and swished it from the 3-point line. The place erupted and he noted that “it just sort of reminded me of the kind of bond that sports creates in people. People—for all our differences politically, regionally, economically—most folks understand sports. Probably because it’s one of the few places where it’s a true meritocracy.”
I recently received an anonymous letter from a person identified as “A Concerned Parent,” essentially expressing intolerance for non-US born players competing in sanctioned tournaments. The writer went on to “let the foreigners go back to their own country to play tournaments” and stated that “these foreigners take, take, take, but give nothing back,” suggesting that I take steps to “rectify this situation.” Receiving this letter from someone in the squash community, in 2012, troubled me. That said, I considered it to be someone representing their own narrow views. Then an incident occurred at our U.S. Junior Championships which, while different in content and context, was equally disturbing.
This caused me to reflect on the journey of Trinity College Men’s Squash Coach Paul Assaiante and his teams over the last 15 years. Assaiante has changed the face of squash in the US. He has done this by serving as one of the most talented coaches in history, and likely the most accomplished international recruiter of all time. With many of his players coming from places outside the US, his team has been subjected to, quoting his book, “a stunning display of xenophobia and racism.” Signs at one school hosting Trinity read, “They May Be National Champs, But They Can’t Speak English.” The level of criticism Assaiante and his team received was matched only by its falsehood. The Trinity team’s GPA is consistently higher than the campus average and, some years, the highest of any team on campus, and many in the Ivy League have recruited abroad to build championship teams themselves for decades, to debunk just two of the many accusations hurled their way.
For a recent reminder of this lunacy, and to acknowledge that the phenomenon is not limited in reach, we need only reflect on last season’s Dartmouth/Harvard match where it was reported in The Boston Globe that, “for at least 90 minutes, about a dozen Dartmouth students pelted Harvard’s men and women players with obscenity-laced insults that some witnesses described as misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic.” Sadly this is not unique to squash. Recently, five members of the University of Southern Mississippi pep band had their scholarships revoked for heckling a Kansas State basketball player with chants of “Where’s your green card?” during the NCAA tournament.
The United States of America is widely regarded as the best country in the world, where people are able to retain their cultural identities, assimilate to a new life and where differences are not only tolerated, they are embraced and celebrated. Freedom of speech exists as a pillar of strength in our society, however there is also strength in diversity. That so many of Coach Assaiante’s players have gone on to prominent careers outside of squash, and dozens have stayed in squash to become extremely successful coaches at some of the best clubs in the country, underscores this fact. In the end, the President got it right—sport creates a bond like few things can in life. For my children’s sake, I’m counting on it.