I’ve been thinking about the American Dream a lot lately. I’ve read about Jay Gatsby striving toward achieving it in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous novel, and I’ve seen it embodied by Don Draper in Mad Men. I’ve heard it touted in the rhetoric of politicians on the left and the right, and I’ve witnessed the efforts of friends try to make it a reality for undocumented immigrant youth. As I understand it, the American Dream promises the opportunity to be a successful and happy person through your own hard work and regardless of your background. It’s the ideal of a meritocracy.
American sports offer similar promises. I like to think of the world of sports as a microcosm for the American Dream on the playing field. I’ve written about this before as I saw it in Sugar — a movie about a kid from the Dominican Republic who comes to America to play baseball. In fact, there are a lot of sports movies that tell similar stories — Rocky, Glory Road, Moneyball and The Blind Side to name just a few. They’re all hard-luck stories about underdogs who overcome the odds to be successful. The underdog story really is the American Dream in a nutshell, and the world of sports is littered with such stories.
I thought I would write about one of these stories for my last column in The Sun. It involves a future Cornellian, so I thought it would be especially cool to mention it. It’s the story of Kareem Rosser — an African American kid from the inner-city of Philadelphia who led an all-black polo team last year to win the National Interscholastic Polo Championship (for middle and high school kids). It was the first time ever that an all-black polo team won the championship. Numerous major media outlets have picked up on the story including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CNN, CBS and HBO, precisely because an all-black team managed to win a championship in a traditionally white-dominated sport.
Of course, not many black people play polo — not many white people play polo either for that matter. Polo has traditionally been a sport for the elite — the 1 percent if you will — and is often called the “Sport of Kings.” Recognizing who usually plays polo then, what’s surprising isn’t that a team of black lower-class athletes won a championship in a sport dominated by white upper-class players, it’s that they got a chance to play to begin with. Their opportunity to play the sport wasn’t a product of achieving the American Dream, but their championship highlights the workings of the American Dream within sports. It’s a nice reminder that anybody on the playing field, or court, or rink, or pitch, etc., if given the chance and possessing the talent and work ethic, can excel regardless of background. By the way, this year Kareem Rosser’s former team once again won the men’s championship — this time with two black males and a female.
That’s the beauty of sports. It’s the perfect example of the type of meritocracy that the American Dream is supposed to embody. Assuming the rules of the game aren’t rigged, the meritocracy should work just fine. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case in sports or outside of sports. Outside of sports the conditions that are supposed to be conducive to the American Dream have probably always been less than perfect — maybe they’ve never been perfect and never will be. Many of you who are reading this might be concerned about this as you look forward to life post-graduation. It’s hard to be optimistic about the promise of the American Dream, but perhaps we shouldn’t lose hope by imaging the possibilities. Sports stories like Kareem Rosser’s provide a vision for what the American Dream and what a meritocracy can look like.