SPORTS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD by The Sports Philosopher

December 20, 2009
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      I took my son to see Invictus the other day.   It wasn’t very good.   I guess it wasn’t a bad movie per se, just not exactly a transcendent work of art.   For instance Matt Damon, a fine actor, was badly under-utilized, and in fact there was very little character development in the film at all.   From an artistic point of view, the one bright spot was the ever-digestible Morgan Freeman.   He did a great job as Nelson Mandela.   He mastered Mandela’s walk, his accent, his dialect, his mannerisms, and by virtue of his extraordinary gifts as an actor his mere presence managed to bring some authority and credibility to a movie that was far too long to support a weak, flaccid script.   I suppose if I was reviewing the movie I’d give it a B-minus.   Not very good.

      But I didn’t care.

      Because I believe Invictus is an important movie for any and every 13-year old kid to see.   Frankly, the fact that it has a documentary feel makes it better as a teaching tool.

      Invictus is concerned with Mandela—the new South African president, and himself only five years removed from being released from captivity after 27 years, once jailed by the very government he now heads—and his quest to forge a new South Africa by bringing together the blacks, always the majority and now in power, with the whites, their past oppressors who still by and large resent and despise them.   Quite a problem, wouldn’t you say?

      Mandela reasons that what he needs is a symbol that both sides can unify behind.   He selects the Springboks, the nearly all-white national rugby team, and long a symbol of apartheid oppression.   (Mandela himself, while in jail, had openly rooted against the Springboks whenever they played.)    But now he needs the Springboks to be a symbol of pride to all South Africans, not just the whites.   He meets with Damon’s character, the Springboks captain, and prevails upon him to dedicate his and his team’s maximum effort to winning the upcoming 1995 rugby World Cup.   Which is fine, except that the Springboks are not that good.   They are seeded only 9th in the tournament, meaning that they are considered to be only the 9th most-likely team to come out on top.  

      Mandela knows that if the Springboks were to win it would be great, but that winning is sort of beside the point.   The point is that in South Africa the whites needed to accept the blacks, and the blacks needed to forgive the whites.   And without giving away the ending, suffice to say that as the story evolves Mandela’s incalculable influence with his fellow blacks slowly gets them to embrace the suddenly invincible Springboks, while all the white players (and Damon’s character in particular), in their fierce support of Mandela’s plan and his leadership, slowly bring the whites along to where you leave the theater thinking that they will at least give Mandela and his people a chance.   All because a so-so team of rugby players put a once-divided nation on their backs, finally started winning as if a reward for their courage, and carried that nation into the 21st century.   Who says sports can’t change the world?

      It happened in this country too.

     xxx It was 1938.   Joe Louis, the black heavyweight champion with the left-handed nickname “The Brown Bomber”, was preparing to fight Max Schmeling, the German former Heavyweight Champion, the only man to ever defeat Louis in the ring.   That beating had been administered two years earlier in Yankee Stadium, when the German had exposed a flaw in Louis’ defenses and KO’d the American in the 12th round.   Now they were about to fight in Yankee Stadium again.   Louis was restless, frantic, terrified. 

      Because the weight of the world was on his shoulders.   He figured he had let his race down in ’36.   In a weird, unfair way, he had.   After thrashing Louis, Schmeling was being trumpeted by Hitler and the Nazis as the very symbol of Aryan racial superiority.   And by ’38, it was no secret that America and Germany were headed for war.   Louis had therefore come to represent American ideals, democracy incarnate.   Schmeling had become, for Americans, the symbol of Nazi evil.

      And then, of course, there was the race question.   If Schmeling were to knock out Louis a 2nd time, it would—for all intents and purposes—prove to the world that whites were superior to blacks, that in a pinch the white demigod would always dominate and humble the black man.   

      The ironic thing here is that Schmeling, though a proud German, was no Nazi.   His fight manager was Jewish, for one thing.   For another, he actually hid a couple of young Jewish boys in his house during the famous Anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, at great personal risk, and then helped smuggle them out of the country.   He saved their lives.   He was, by all accounts, a great guy.   A German sportsman who just wanted to box.

      Didn’t matter.   To Americans he was both Nazi villain and master-race merchant.   Louis knew this.   That’s why he was beside himself with fear.   Ironically, he knew that he would have the support of thousands of whites who would not normally have ever rooted for a black man in a boxing match, but as their standard-bearer against Nazi tyranny and anti-Americanism, he was suddenly their man.   Even President Roosevelt had come to Louis’ training camp to shake the black champion’s hand and wish him luck.   He had to win this fight.   There was no other option.   Failure would be catastrophic to his country, his race, his pride, the future war effort, everything.   Perhaps no athlete in U.S. history ever faced more pressure than did Joe Louis on that grand, gargantuan day in June of 1938.

      This probably explains why at the opening bell Louis charged across the ring like a Tasmanian Devil.   He tore into Schmeling with all the wrath of an angry nation, multiplied by a whole race of people done wrong.   The fight lasted barely two minutes.   Louis landed 31 punches.   The German landed two.   So devastating were the Brown Bomber’s blows that he broke two vertebrae in Schmeling’s back, damaged his kidneys, rattled his jaw, and caused his white challenger to cry out audibly in pain.   The Yankee Stadium crowd was stunned at first, then delirious with joy.   It was one of the most thorough, focused, and genuinely vicious beatings ever meted out in the ring.   Louis dropped Schmeling to the canvas three times.   The referee stopped the fight at 2:04 of the first round.

      Suddenly and for all time, Louis was an American hero.   Not just a hero to blacks, but a genuine American hero.   He had beaten back the Nazis singlehanded, shown that blacks were just as tough and courageous as whites, and galvanized a nation in the process.

      Schmeling himself realized this, as he recounted in his autobiography his thoughts during his ambulance ride to the hospital afterward:  As we drove through Harlem, there were noisy, dancing crowds. Bands had left the nightclubs and bars and were playing and dancing on the sidewalks and streets. The whole area was filled with celebration, noise, and saxophones, continuously punctuated by the calling of Joe Louis’ name.   Louis is unquestionably the first black man to achieve American-hero status throughout the whole country, and was an integral instrument of the government for promulgating anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to and during World War II.

      What I’m wondering, is what would have happened had Louis lost?   I hate to even think of it.

      Schmeling and Louis lost track of each other for several years.   Louis was champion all the way up till 1949, defending his crown 25 times, a record.   Sadly, after boxing, Louis’ life was dominated by income tax problems (due in part to his own government taxing earnings which he had donated to the government, during the war), drug addiction, and chronic paranoia.   He died broke.   Conversely, Schmeling became a rich man after the war, being the first businessman to bring the Coca-Cola brand to Germany.   The two ex-champions became very good friends in the 50s, staying that way until Louis died in 1981.   Max visited Joe every year at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where Joe worked as a greeter.   And finally it was Max Schmeling, who had sent his vanquisher money many times over the years and paid many of his medical expenses over time, who was a pallbearer at the funeral of the man who had battered him senseless that grand, gargantuan day way back in June of 1938.   Time heals all wounds, I guess.

      Speaking of healing, Max must have been a very good healer indeed.   He died in 2005, just shy of his 100th birthday.   He is the longest-lived Heavyweight Champion of all time.

      Anyway, don’t let anybody ever tell you that sports is all just fun and games.   Can sports make a difference?   Can sports really change the world?

      You bet’cha.

brad-eastland7meet The Sports Philosopher

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    He has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of Brad’s fiction work can be discovered within the links below :







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