It is easy to criticize sports and athletes. Many spoiled stars prove that, for all their exploits on the field, they are flawed, sad people off it. Ticket prices and athletes' salaries soar ever higher while unemployment ravages our economy. And we, the fans, pay more attention to March Madness than the madness in Darfur.
But for all this, sports do matter. Sports can be a force for good. Take Manut Bol. At one point the tallest basketball player ever, he donated most of his money to help the people of Sudan, his homeland. He worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the suffering there and to raise money for schools. He did anything and everything he could for his people.
He participated in Celebrity Boxing on Fox so they would televise the phone number of his charity, the Ring True Foundation (he won in the third round). Unable to ice-skate, he nonetheless signed a one day contract with the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League to raise money. He even worked as a jockey!
Manut Bol died last Saturday from acute kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome. At the time of his death, the first of his schools is being built in his childhood village. His dream was to build 41 schools. Only 40 to go.
This goal is achievable; as Nicholas Kristof wrote in today's New York Times, "If each admirer chipped in the cost of a ticket to just one game, if each of his former teams agreed to match donations, if a few current and former N.B.A. stars agreed to stand in for Bol at fund-raisers, why then schools would sprout all across Sudan."
I bet it will happen. And it will all be because of a tall former cattle-herder learned to play basketball.
Just in this week alone, there have been other examples of the power of sports at work. The U.S. men's national soccer team persevered through two horrendous calls that disallowed goals and won its group, displaying tenacity and resolve at a moment when American leadership often lacks either. Lightly regarded teams like Japan played inspired soccer while traditional powers like Italy dissolved from cynicism while exiting early. Time and time again, hardworking teams overcame more talented squads that spent more time sniping at each other than scoring. Desire and determination beat arrogance and narcissism.
That is why sports matter. In our athletes and in our athletic events, we see the best and worst of humanity. For every Italian team that crashes out ignobly, there is an American team that wins brilliantly. For every Ben Roethlisberger, there is also a Manut Bol. And if you want to help, head to SudanSunrise.org. While we cannot all be stars, we can all do our part.