This weekend I watched “Invictus” (2009), the rugby film set in post-apartheid South Africa.  It tells the story of how President Nelson Mandela united his country with the nation’s victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Mandela understood that a united South Africa was the only way the country could move forward from its past, but the story is also about a rugby team, the South African Springboks, who were determined to beat the best rugby team in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks.  As the drama plays out on the field, the dreams of the president, the players, and the people are fulfilled.

I have been appreciating sports more lately; at one time, sports were nothing more to me than men at play.  As I learn more about each game, particularly basketball, I see shared goals, shared effort, and shared accountability for wins and losses; the fact that young people and adults enjoy sports and value team effort so much says something important about us, especially at a time when America is so divided in other ways.

As I watched “Invictus,” I thought of my summer school students who, in their first week, gave presentations on something they could analyse using the classical appeals: pathos, logos, and ethos. Many of them showed Youtube clips of moments in sports history that encouraged or inspired them.

Abel showed a clip of Derek Redmond running the 400 meter race at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.  Redmond suddenly dropped to his knees in pain from a torn hamstring.  He got up and limp-sped his way forward.  Suddenly, a man broke through security and put his arm around Redmond and supported him.  The man was his father.  He let Derek go just before the finish line so he could finish what he started on his own.

Abel spoke of pathos, the emotional appeal, and its grip on the human spirit, especially when one feels down and out.  We need inspiration, he said, and inspiration is heartfelt, it defies reason, it’s not logical. To see an athlete fall, then pick himself up and press on is inspirational; additionally, to see the athlete’s father wrap his arm around his son in a moment of need is truly uplifting.

Ashley showed a clip called “How Bad Do You Want It?”  It features an American football player who wanted so badly to succeed, and who found a coach that taught him to fight for success by taking him to the ocean, telling him to walk into the water until his head went under.  The coach said, “If you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe then you’ll be successful.”  Ashley shared that the logic of this lesson caused her to decide on her major and she credits the clip for changing her life.

I add “Invictus” to the list under ethos, the appeal through credibility.  The only way the blacks and whites of South Africa could be convinced to be united after the deadly segregation of apartheid ended, was by having a leader that led by example, a leader they could trust.  Nelson Mandela sat in a cell for nearly 30 years and when he came out and won the presidency, he was ready to put his experience of suffering behind him and forgive those who had oppressed and imprisoned him.  Because he had suffered, too, and had learned forgiveness, he was able to show his people what was possible and thereby unite them.

I’m not surprised that many of my students used sports clips in their presentations.  Teenagers look up to athletes.  Athletes embody strength, determination, and a sense of destiny.  They inspire the weakened to pick up and be strengthened by their inherent drive and will.

As a country, we’ve been through a lot over the last four years.  The post-9/11 spirit of unity and brotherhood is far behind us.  We have extremes in our political parties and systematised hate in our legislation.  Some say gay marriage will destroy the sanctity of marriage, so anti-gay statutes are put in place to protect it.  Legislatures in Arizona regard Mexican American studies as unpatriotic, so they threatened school budgets until MA studies were pulled from the curriculum.  Heightened strictures on illegal immigrants in many states across the south and southwest put fear into immigrants, so many immigrants left those states in search for safer ground.

When others want we we hold dear, we tend to deny them their wish because we’re afraid of what they will do with it, how they will use it, change it, or destroy it.  Mostly, we are afraid of how they will change us.  I refuse the claim that these recent bans or inhumane statutes are unrelated to the election of a black president; after Obama took office, a firestorm of extremes erupted and some Americans demanded to see his birth certificate (and some like Donald Trump still challenge Obama’s citizenship).  Political divisions widened in response (i.e. retaliation) to Obama’s promise to unite the country in a blanket of hope.  Such irony!

Nelson Mandela knows our story of division all too well, and he also knows the importance and necessity of unity.  What we need more than ever, as we move into the 2012 presidential elections, is a unifying act or moment that can bind us together again.  We need our own Invictus.  Can sports offer such a moment?  I don’t know.  The young people that watch the rest of us argue over keeping what is ours and insisting we can’t share it, are already looking away from us and to moments in sports history for inspiration and for ways to stay unconquered in these turbulent moments of tension and change.

They have found their Invictus.  It’s time the rest of us find ours.

“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, 1888

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

*The word invictus means “unconquered” in Latin.  It is also the title of the poem by William Ernest Henley that Nelson Mandela is said to have read for inspiration while he was in jail.  I use the word here to describe a moment that can inspire unity. 


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