The Changing Face of Sport - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Changing Face of Sport

The Changing Face of Sport

By Charu Sudan Kasturi and Stephen Starr

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Nelson Mandela knew the power sports have to bring change and used it to build the foundations of South Africa’s post-apartheid Rainbow Nation. “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair,” the Nobel laureate once said.

Today, just a glance at the biggest stars of the most popular sports is enough to see that change is coming faster than ever. Racism and machismo have long been a bitter reality in top-tier sports.

But a new generation of athletes — from rodeo athletes to refugees and hoopsters to hitters — is fundamentally changing the way our favorite sports look. In today’s Daily Dose, we share some of the most stunning changes transforming the world of sports.

AMERICAN EVOLUTION

Immigrants Are Baseball’s Backbone

America’s game has for decades relied on imported talent to field the best teams. Nearly 30% of Major League Baseball players are born overseas. At the small-town level, their presence is even more critical. Of the eight teams in a 2019 Minor League Baseball grouping based in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, immigrants made up 34% of the playing roster. It’s a telling figure when you consider those states have an average per-capita immigrant population of just 5%. That’s not all. Baseball plays a major role in building bridges between rural communities that are overwhelmingly white and people from other cultures.

Native American Millennials at the Rodeo

The rodeo world is the sole preserve of the white, male rancher, right? Not so fast, cowboy. Increasingly, young Native American bull and bronc riders are making it to the big time. In 2018, Keyshawn Whitehorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, won the elite Professional Bull Riders “Rookie of the Year” title, beating out rivals from the U.S. and four other countries. The Utah native currently sits in the top 10 rankings for the Professional Bull Riders’ 2021 season and is joined in the PBR rankings by the likes of Cody Jesus (also Navajo) and Colten Jesse (Potawatomi). But it’s not only the boys making waves. Watch out for teenager Najiah Knight of the Paiute and Klamath tribes, who has been taking the junior bull riding world by storm.

Inequality in the Classroom

That college athletes can now get paid for the first time puts the ball firmly in their court. But what about schools that now find themselves forced to pony up for new incentives in order to attract student athletes? “The risk,” writes The Athletic, “is that institutions with small endowments and money-losing athletics programs may divert resources from financial aid and student services” to sports in order to keep attracting students. That means that colleges may find themselves spending most of their cash on attracting top sports talent and less on scholarships, clubs and societies that traditionally benefit first-generation college-goers and those from poor backgrounds the most.

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CHANGES OVERSEAS

Immigrants Reshaping Gaelic Games

In Ireland, hurling and Gaelic football are king. But rural regions have been suffering from falling population numbers. As young people headed to Dublin and Belfast in search of better-paying jobs, following the 2008 economic crisis, the number of people playing these sports was at risk of falling. In recent years, a new cohort of immigrants and refugees have not only helped keep these team sports alive, but they are taking center stage on the national level. Take Wexford’s Lee Chin, the midfield powerhouse and former hurling captain whose father is from Malaysia. Chin is regarded as one of the best hurlers in Ireland today. Other foreign-born athletes, such as Pakistan-born Shairoze Akram and Congo-born Israel Ilunga, have helped bring success to communities far from Ireland’s larger cities.

Rugby Is Big in Japan

New Zealanders take their rugby very seriously. So why have many of their most decorated players been leaving in droves for Japan, hardly a rugby powerhouse itself? From ex-All Black captain and legend Kieran Read to world record points scorer Dan Carter, New Zealand’s top talent has found its way north, especially as they’ve neared retirement. What’s the attraction? Unsurprisingly, it’s cold, hard cash. A number of Japanese rugby clubs are financially backed by major corporations and are thus able to pay higher salaries for top rugby talent. What’s more, it’s not only decorated international players who are heading to Japan, but young and hungry Kiwi players too. Experts say the consequences for the local game in New Zealand could be very bad indeed.

Women’s Cricket Imperiled in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s cricket fairy tale is one of the only pieces of good news to come from the country in decades. In 2015, its men’s team made the Cricket World Cup, held in Australia, for the first time. By May 2020, the men’s national team had reached a ranking of ninth in the world and cricket had become Afghanistan’s national sport. But the events of the last several weeks have upended the women’s cricket game in particular. Many of the sport’s administrative leaders have fled the country fearing reprisals from the Taliban. Other team members are in hiding in part because of threats the Taliban have made against female cricket players over a period of years. With the Women’s Cricket World Cup set to take place next spring, the chances that many Afghan women will be practicing on their local fields before then look very poor indeed.

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THE BREAKTHROUGH FACES

Giannis Antetokounmpo

He’s the face of the NBA . . . and of basketball’s transformation. In July, the 26-year-old forward led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in a half-century, emerging as the NBA Finals MVP. But the “Greek Freak,” as he is known, is more than a star hoopster. Within the NBA, he’s showcasing the rise of a new generation of foreign-born players who are rising to the very top. Washington Wizards’ Rui Hachimura — born to a Japanese mother and a Beninese father — and Dallas Mavericks’ Slovenian point guard/shooter Luka Dončić are already following in his footsteps. Yet Antetokounmpo might have made the biggest impact back home in Greece, where the stunning rise of this son of Nigerian parents is giving young athletes of color confidence in a nation with a history of racism in sports.

Shohei Ohtani

They call him “Sho Time.” And he puts on a show like few ever have. The Japanese baseball superstar has drawn comparisons with Babe Ruth after he became the first ever player to be selected as both a pitcher and hitter in the All-Star Game in July. Some experts even believe he’s better than Ruth. And the poster boy of modern baseball has done it while battling racism — such as suggestions that his English isn’t good enough to make him attractive to American audiences. In fact, the once-in-a-century phenomenon is helping expand the sport’s global reach, paving a path that others like Roki Sasaki — a Japanese teenager who threw a 101-mph ball while in high school — will look to follow.

Quinn

Sport is in this soccer player’s genes. But this child of college athletes, whose father played rugby and mother played basketball, has broken barriers like no one has. The Canadian national soccer player is the first openly transgender athlete to win an Olympic gold medal after Canada triumphed over Sweden in the women’s football final in Tokyo in August. But they know the battle has just started, with persistent — and in some cases, growing — discrimination against trans athletes. “The fight isn’t close to over . . . and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here,” Quinn says.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

Foreign NBA Pipelines

College basketball has long served as the primary funnel through which generations of elite athletes have made it to the NBA. Now overseas sources of talent are opening up like never before. This year, 13 players from the National Basketball League in Australia and New Zealand — including LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and Josh Giddey — were picked for the summer league rosters. Spain’s Liga ACB was home to names such as Dončić and Argentine Luis Scola — who retired last week — before they moved to the NBA. And the newly formed Basketball Africa League, which counts former President Barack Obama as a strategic partner, appears primed to train a new generation of African-origin superstars who could rule the NBA in years to come.

Women in Charge

In 2008, Becky Hammon was accused by the U.S. national women’s basketball coach of betraying America after she played for Russia at the Beijing Olympics. In reality, the U.S. national team hadn’t expressed interest in her — and Russia did. Today, she’s broken through generations of gender barriers, becoming the first woman to act as head coach for an NBA team, the San Antonio Spurs, in December. As the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA, she’s part of a wave of women who are taking charge of top-flight men’s sports clubs. Last November, Faiza Haider became the first woman to become head coach of an Egyptian men’s soccer team. And Nita Ambani, philanthropist, businesswoman and wife of Indian multibillionaire Mukesh Ambani, has turned a once-struggling team — the Mumbai Indians — into Indian cricket’s most successful franchise.

Yes to ‘24’ in Brazil?

It’s a number pejoratively associated with homosexuality in Brazilian culture. That, in turn, has meant that in a country where machismo is the norm, soccer clubs and players have shunned jerseys with the number 24. But over the past two years, a slow but definite movement has taken root within the sport, aiming to fight homophobia by embracing the number. It took off after Kobe Bryant — who wore a number 24 shirt — died in 2020, with Brazilian soccer club Bahia and the sports magazine Corner driving the campaign. Since then, a number of rising Brazilian soccer players such as Víctor Cantillo of Cornithians, Flávio Medeiros of Bahia and Gabriel Barbosa of Flamengo have worn number 24 shirts. And in July this year, a judge asked the country’s governing body for soccer why no member of Brazil’s Copa América team had that number.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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