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Big Lessons from a Little Country: The Games We Play

November 25, 2009

This is the second in a short (but as yet indeterminate) series of posts arising in part from my reflections on living abroad that is cross-posted here and on

A few months ago I read somewhere that President Barack Obama had included the novel Netherland by Joseph O’Neill on his summer reading list. The choice intrigued me, so I picked up a copy myself.

The novel, set largely in and around New York City in the months after 9/11, follows the experiences of an expatriate Dutchman as he grapples with the changes in his life following that devastating event. O’Neill’s narrator, Hans van den Broek, turns to playing cricket on weekends with a ragtag assembly of other expats as he struggles to overcome the darkness that envelopes him after his wife flees the city with their son to take refuge with her parents in London.

The sport of cricket and those with whom Hans plays provide him with an intimate outlet for his energies while introducing him to an exotic and sometimes sinister world beyond the comfortable experience of his existence before the attacks. In cricket, Hans finds a connection with his past. As Hans forges new friendships with other immigrants through cricket, he rediscovers the importance of relationships and in doing so reconnects with himself and his family.

When I learned that the president was reading this book, I was intrigued because it followed the story of a 9/11 survivor (albeit fictional) who was not an American and told the story through his experiences with a game unfamiliar to most Americans. As I followed its narrative, I could not help but wonder what lessons the president took from its pages.

Americans are not alone in their penchant for sports metaphors and analogies. Like its alleged descendent, baseball, cricket has been the source of a rich cultural idiom, which is often reflected in our language. But unlike baseball metaphors, which tend to emphasize power and domination, cricket metaphors tend to emphasize fair play, equanimity, and the vagaries of life.

In baseball-speak hitting a homerun or whiffing suggests two opposite outcomes from the confrontation between the pitcher and hitter. In cricket – the game’s name itself is often used as a synonym for candid and impartial conduct – one might find oneself ‘on a sticky wicket’ such as the difficulty confronted by both the bowler and the batsman when the bowled ball bounces in a flat or inconsistent fashion due to a too wet bowling surface.

As an American weaned on baseball, I found it difficult to understand cricket when I first moved to New Zealand. A test match between national sides can last for up to five days, and sometimes ends in a tie. As an American used to certain outcomes from sporting contests, the confusion produced by watching a lengthy contest that ends in such an ambiguous fashion is only compounded by the realization that the players and fans often see this ambivalent ending coming after just two days of play. Yet they routinely continue the competition anyway.

The games we play affect more than the language we use. Insofar as they arise from our experience of the world, they affect the words we use to describe it. In turn, they also become metaphors for our relationship to the world and others in it.

In light of this, is it any wonder then that India and Pakistan (two of the world’s greatest cricket-playing nations) would – even after watching the Cold War end leaving both former adversaries armed but unsure whom to target – choose to arm themselves with nuclear weapons even though they arguably have little or no intention of using them against one another much less anyone else?

Tomorrow here in the United States we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. For many of us, sporting contests will feature prominently in our family rituals. It strikes me that these particular sports and the central role they play on such a significant national holiday say a lot about our own culture and values as well.

This seemed evident enough on Tuesday at a news conference after President Obama’s meeting with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, when the president, being questioned about his decision on General McChrystal’s troop request and the impending announcement of a new strategy for America’s involvement in Afghanistan, spoke of his intention to ‘finish the job’ and reiterated his administration’s intention to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al-Qaeda. Which sporting metaphor fits these sentiments best, and what does it say about our opponents and our expectations?

With few exceptions, Americans enjoy sports that have gained little following or purchase beyond our own shores. The sports in which most of the world engages involve inherent ambiguities and often outright contradictions (as we witnessed this week in the dispute arising from the errant hand ball in the soccer World Cup qualifier between France and Ireland).

The officials in these games must often apply considerably more discretion than the balls and strikes or safe-at-home calls reserved to baseball umpires or the flag throwing and whistle-blowing of football referees.In some instances, these officials act as finders of fact and interpreters of law and can literally decide to call or not call an obvious infraction. Their decisions can and often do have a consequential influence over a contest’s outcome, yet their judgments leave no recourse for either side. Notwithstanding this situation, players and fans of these games consider these contests worthy of intense attention and most fervent devotion, which often means the heated debate after the match over a few pints is every bit as much a part of the action as what happened on the pitch between the sides.

As we look forward to the trials of the alleged 9/11 terrorists co-conspirators in the federal courts in the year ahead, we would do well to ask ourselves what we expect of these impending contests and how sport informs our judgments about what will happen in them. Does our decision depend on the outcome?

Likewise, we would do well to consider how others will see these tests. Is it likely that someone, although comfortable with ambiguity and more fluent in the contradictions of an uneven pitch and the vagaries of officials’ human fallibility, will see these trials or their outcomes as fair and just?

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