Making Mandela Meaningful to American Kids through Sport(s)

Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It can create hope where once there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. – Nelson Mandela

I’ll get back to my baseball tale soon, but I simply must take the time out to honor the passing of what, as you might gather from this blog, is a personal hero.  Nelson Mandela was such a remarkable man in so many ways, and his journey from nonviolence to armed struggle and back to nonviolence, particularly because the road back was one taken while in captivity, is one of the most remarkable personal tales ever told—and it was told on a global stage.

But while most of us grownups remember Sun City, Biko, and the shantytowns built all over college campuses in the 80’s divestment movement, our kids have lived in a world where South Africa has been a non-issue on the American news stage.  Apartheid is history, and not one most schools teach to elementary and middle schoolers.  So on the day of his passing, I struggled to think about how to make this amazing man connect to my suburban white kids.

And then I remembered the quote from above, and the story of the 1995 rugby world cup that was captured in the movie Invictus, staring Morgan Freeman and Mandella.  I quickly scanned Netflix to see if it was streaming, but, alas, no dice.  Instead, I got even luckier, as the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The 16th Man was ready to roll, and it is also available in its entirely on YouTube as embedded below.

We boys watched this just a couple of hours ago, and both pronounced it, “Very cool!”  I really can’t imagine a better hour spent with my kids today than watching this.  Much like the movie Lincoln gave you a measure of the full man by taking a small slice out if his life, The 16th Man gives you a sense of this pivotal moment in both South African and world history, and the enormity of his courage and his strategic thinking to bring a nation together that seemed virtually certain to be torn asunder by hatred, violence, and revenge.  I cannot imagine actors doing a better job in relating the personal and emotional journey that the South African rugby team went on than the players did themselves.

I think what makes this great for kids is that, at its center, this is a classic underdog sports story with a magical ending.  But the sport here transcends sports, and shows Mandela in a relatable and heroic light that is both true and resonant for today’s kids.

As we discussed it, my little guy immediately made the connection between Mandela and Rosa parks, and we also started an interesting discussion about the current flap over the name “Redskins” for Mandela took one of the most hated single symbols of the apartheid era, the Springbok of the national rugby team, and wore it on his head and his heart, even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.

I’m so glad I had the chance to share that moment with my kids, and hope that Mandela’s spirit smiled a bit in knowing that his wisdom will continue to make a difference in children around the world who may not have even heard of him until today.

Rest well, Madiba, the epitome of a life well lived.

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