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A Free and Ordered Space



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The Institute has lately been involved in a project with the International Olympic Truce Centre aimed at developing a Handbook of “best practices” employing sport as a peacebuilding tool for United Nations peacekeepers in post-conflict situations. That task has required that we first understand more deeply how much peacekeepers are using athletics for this purpose. Second, we have set out to determine what is known concerning how sport conduces to conflict amelioration and the re-creation of norms of common claim or community. Our work on this issue generated an invitation by the International Olympic Committee for me to present our preliminary findings at an international forum on Sport, Peacebuilding and Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. That opportunity in turn spurred me to consider more deeply why sport can play a role in peacebuilding.

As I reflected I was reminded of a collection of essays on higher education by professor of Italian Renaissance Literature, Yale University president and Commissioner of Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti. While president of Yale from 1978-1986 Giamatti used the punctuation points of the academic year (Freshman Address, Baccalaureate, and so on) to think deeply abut the role of the university and, especially, of liberal education within it. Certain of those now canonical speeches and reflections were revised and collected into a book in 1990, A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. In one of the essays Giamatti reflected on the university as a community that celebrated both individual diligence and energy and the broader social claims and purposes to which those capacities were best harnessed:

The paradox into which one gradually grows, through education and throughout one’s life, is that independence is achieved by and through consenting to interdependence. I believe we grow in individual liberty in this country when we recognize the human needs and rights of others. I believe a state of independence comes when we decide through our intellect and sprit to forge human connections. Without connections, there is no individual coherence. There is no independence in uprootedness; there is only drift and decay. There is no growth of the moral and mental powers of the self if the self alone is the ultimate goal of learning. Independence of an enduring kind, noble and practical, arrives only when one realizes what it means, in all its glory and responsibility, that one is not alone (p.82).

What strikes me most about this passage is Giamatti’s ultimate vision of the interdependence of individual and community. The community, whether understood as family, village or university, may support the individual, but it may not exist in the first instance without the engagement of the people who comprise it. These must seek coherence through relationships, and it is the norms that underpin and join those connections that constitute the source and vitality of the community. These relationships will nourish and sustain the capacity for both individual growth and autonomy of possibility and communal energy and sustenance.

This idea is essential if one is to understand the potential power of the role of sport in peacebuilding. Sport celebrates individual competence, diligence and grace. It demands self- discipline, talent and ambition. But even those sports that celebrate individual achievement do not bring athletes to the highest order of excellence as hermit-like automatons. Instead, athletes are taught and prodded and cheered and uplifted by coaches, athletic staffs, friends and family. These offer training regimens as well as space and time and unstinting moral support. The bonds that join these people to the athlete, whether rooted in love, friendship or shared passion for the sport, permit and prompt the individual to succeed.

There are lessons here for peacebuilders and for our understanding of the role of sport in social reconstruction efforts. First, sport constitutes a microcosm of community. It relies implicitly and explicitly on relationships even as it celebrates individual excellence and achievement. The most talented striker in soccer or guard in basketball is not likely to score without first receiving a pass from a teammate that places him or her in position to do so. Similarly, baseball celebrates the role of teammates in just this sense by tracking “sacrifice flies” and “runs batted in” as indicators of how team members support each other’s success. Second, sport implies common rules of engagement. One must accept those claims to participate. A discus thrower may not release beyond a certain line or will forfeit the toss. Tennis players may not cross the service line when serving and must keep the ball within agreed up bounds to score and to compete. A “gigantic blast” in baseball does not count as a home run unless it occurs within the specified field of play.

These examples could easily be multiplied. What they suggest is that each sport relies on a common set of rules and norms that control the contest. Players enter competition subject to these, and violations may result in the inability to participate. Sport relies on norms and the relationships that play both nurtures and embodies. Last, these norms and the values they express may change, but not without the consent of those who participate in the game. The community that plays a sport creates and sustains mechanisms that allow for constant experience-based learning and orderly evolution.

Communities emerging from conflict have fractured or even lost the ties among their members that once bound them. Often this occurs by intention as one party or another seeks to enflame potential supporters by dehumanizing or scapegoating a targeted group as somehow not human or worse. Examples abound: the radio campaign preceding the genocide in Rwanda that characterized the Tutsis as “cockroaches,” Hitler’s vile rhetoric concerning the Jews and Milosevic’s efforts in Yugoslavia to create a “pure” Serbia. Sadly, these examples only point to like efforts across human history. In such circumstances and once hostilities have ceased, sport can recreate the possibility of an ordered environment in which those lately engaged in war may meet one another afresh. On the playing field, they may do so knowing and using norms while aware of the values that underpin them. They may do so realizing that certain behaviors will result in penalties or will not be countenanced, and they may do so in the knowledge that boundaries must be recognized. In this ordered reality previous combatants are free to compete and to collaborate to seek victory, but victory will be defined as temporary, within the bounds of the game, and will be predicated on norms of mutual civility.

Would-be peacebuilders using sport rely implicitly on the hope that previously sworn enemies will use the playing field and the rules and norms under which it functions to come to recognize Giamatti’s insight that uprootedness and radical individuality do not produce coherence or development. In this sense, sport may help to overcome past enmity by highlighting the possibility of respectful and controlled competition. Sport provides the portent and possibility of an ordered community. It also reinforces, indeed demands, development of norms of mutual comity, if not respect. These are essential to any free community. Sport may help establish such norms, but they cannot be institutionalized in community by athletics alone.

Giamatti had in mind the university as a free and ordered space. The Institute’s role in the continuous creation of that possibility surely remains an aspiration as we go about our work. Nevertheless, it is a special privilege to think afresh about these matters on behalf of societies in post-conflict situations of profound need. This opportunity provides a reminder of the essential fragility of the bonds of community and of their profound significance. Endemic though it may be, the costs of conflict far exceed the countable human sacrifice and suffering it creates. War and social violence may also straightjacket the possibility for a common life among a people or peoples. Whatever their form, efforts to intervene to prevent this possibility are freighted with immense moral possibility and significance. Efforts are afoot around the globe to employ sport to these high purposes.

Publication Date

June 30, 2009