Every morning as I leave for work, I walk into my garage and step past a large Rubbermaid basket. It holds maybe 15 balls of various colors, shapes, and sizes which I have bought over the years for my daughters. As I’m sure is true in ten million other American homes, many of these balls were used a few times and then dropped into the bin, where they remain, slowly deflating as time passes.
I hadn’t thought much about this basket until yesterday, when I helped my colleague Scott Myers preside over an all-day meeting about how sports programs could promote positive development of Chicago youth. We met under the auspices of a large and fancy summit organized by an international organization Beyond Sport. Leaders of sport organizations from all over the world convened downtown at the Palmer House in somewhat higher style than we’re used to at our humble university. Youth workers from Rio, London, Caracas, and across America were comparing notes and trading tchochkees. Serious sports celebrities were on the program, too: Bill Bradley, Michael Johnson, the commissioner of the NHL.
As such conferences tend to do, this one began with a high-octane motivational speaker named Kevin Carroll. He’s been in low-income areas all over the world, trading new soccer balls for whatever local players are using.
Carroll showed us some of the dozens of soccer balls he had collected. Many were made of garbage or old plastic bags, ingeniously tied together with string or whatever else was around. One was tied together with strong cables scored out of a discarded tire. Some were carved out of wood, or twisted out of wicker and used to play 11-on-11 soccer on local fields.
These surprisingly functional and beautiful soccer balls were, as my student Duff Morton noted, a dream exhibit of economic anthropology. They exemplify the depth of poverty in which hundreds of millions of men, women, and children still live. These objects also exemplify the incredible resilience and ingenuity of these very same people in making creative use of whatever is available in a very constrained environment.
It’s wrong to romanticize poverty or to gainsay the advantages of a wealthy, specialized economy. I like my nice sports equipment, not to mention my fancy corrective lenses and countless other things made possible by our wealthy economy Yet Carroll’s souvenirs provide a useful reminder to remember that something precious is lost when every new soccer ball comes from the superstore, when almost every physical need and comfort is addressed through the mysterious work of other people.
It’s a good time as any to appreciate—maybe to learn from and sometimes to emulate—many of our fellow human beings around the world who must live on more elemental terms with the physical objects that sustain their lives, or that simply allow 22 guys to match things up on a soccer pitch.