Since taking office, Donald Trump’s immigration policies have been controversial, to say the least. His attempts at banning people from certain countries from traveling to the United States has caused an uproar and affected the daily lives of thousands of people. International college students, refugees, and asylum seekers are among those impacted. These policies are rooted in economic anxiety and a fear of different cultures tied to a deep- seeded racism in America exacerbated by post 9/11 concerns over terrorism.
Amy Bass offers a picture of this divided America in her new book One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and A Game That Brought Together A Divided Town, published this spring by Hachette Books. In the book, Bass explores the tension among Somali refugees and the predominantly white town of Lewiston, Maine. She shows how high school soccer helped bring the town together to win Lewiston’s first state championship.
The editors of Sport in American History sat down to ask Amy Bass about the book, its lessons for our current political moment, and her advice for historians working on similar topics.
Sport in American History (SAH): You’ve written a lot about race and sports in the past — notably Not the Triumph but the Struggle, your important book on the 1968 Olympics — but your new book is a bit different. It has been compared to Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights and Warren St. John’s Outcasts United, which focus on the importance of sport to a specific local community. Yet, few historians focus on high school or youth sports. How did you come to this topic?
I went to Bates College, which is in Lewiston, Maine. So the city is always on my radar. A friend posted a small article about the team on Facebook – yes, social media CAN be useful – and it caught my eye because of what was going on with the Syrian refugee crisis. After the series of coordinated explosions in Paris in November, 2015, followed by a series of U.S. governors proclaiming that refugees weren’t allowed in their states – a truly ridiculous and offensive notion on so many levels – my head started thinking about this team and its community. So I plunged in.
Sport in American History (SAH): One Goal is a both a transnational and a community study. What are some of the challenges of doing this kind of history and what advice would you give to scholars interested in these kinds of topics?
Well, despite being my fourth book, everything was new with this one. Writing narrative non-fiction for a “big five” press is a giant leap from scholarly writing for a narrowly defined academic audience. I’ve been writing in more popular venues for quite a while now — indeed, I first wrote about this team for CNN – but crafting an entire book in this way was a daunting task. But I found that my training as a historian kept me on the right path: asking questions, honing questions, and then figuring out how best to attack them, digging for every stone that could help tell the story, and constantly making sure I was substantiating each direction I took, and providing an ethical lens throughout. I had no idea my training as a historian could serve me in this way, but it really did. And that shouldn’t be surprising. I was talking to John Fea about it on his fantastic podcast, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and he kept asking, “How did you do this?” And my answer is the same: this is what we do – we put stories together, sometimes through archival work, sometimes not. But we create context – time and space – for a story, and then we tell it. So I guess my hindsight advice is to stick to what you know how to do, but don’t be afraid to do it in a different way
Sport in American History (SAH): In what ways did writing for a popular press about a very recent topic change your approach?
Well, I thought about the craft of writing a lot more. And I wish I had thought more about it with my previous books. I love writing, and I come from a long line of writers in my family. But I never called myself a writer – I was an academic or a historian or a professor or, at least once, a public intellectual. And now I’m wearing that label, writer, author, a little bit more comfortably. Thinking not just about the story I’m telling, but the way I’m telling it. People laugh at this, but true story: before I really got started, I read about writing. A lot. I studied the art of reporting, things like – books like Storycraft became bibles for me. I took very seriously that this was something I hadn’t ever done before, and so I approached it like I was still in graduate school, when picking up a book was a first step to something new. As for writing about a recent topic? I write about the racial politics of sports. It’s always about now, even when I’m writing about then. People kept asking me, “Why don’t you write about Kap?” And I think that my book on ’68, about Smith and Carlos, in so many ways, it is about Kap.
Sport in American History (SAH): Donald Trump’s immigration ban includes Somalis, who are a central part of your story. Drawing on both your new book and your work on 1968, do you see Trump’s antagonistic relationship with black athletes and his attack on refugee and immigrant communities as linked?
Well, of course. Sigh. This is the hard part, right? Writing this during the campaign, during the election, being on the ground with people who experience every single day the awful terrible hate that hate creates. Feeling like what you’re writing about is overwhelmingly relevant, and then waking up the next morning and realizing that things can get worse. But the bottom line is that of course these things are connected because it’s always about the ‘other’. Trump went to Maine, he campaigned there, and while I don’t devote a lot of attention to him in the book, he’s there, lying – let’s just use that word, shall we? – lying about the Somalis and their impact on Maine. Lying about immigrants. I don’t correct him in the book – I let Lewiston’s police chief correct him about his assumptions and presumptions, about the ways in which he flames the fires of racial animosity and stereotypes, resurrecting them. The same is true of anyone who castigates a black athlete, whether in 1968 with a black-gloved fist raised overhead or on bended knee during the national anthem at a football game as “ungrateful” – think about that word for a moment. That someone is ungrateful because he or she stays true to who they are while donning a uniform or playing for a team, exercising first amendment rights in a spotlight that most people don’t have. There is very similar racist rhetoric in response to refugees and immigrants – that they are the receivers of handouts, that “we” (whoever “we” is) pay for “them.” Smith and Carlos were considered by so many in the aftermath of their protest in Mexico City in 1968 as being athletes who squandered the opportunity “we” – meaning America, writ large, I suppose – gave them. And there’s a real gut punch at the end of ONE GOAL, a political wake up call to show that even revered championship teams can’t make it all happen. And we know that. Whether it’s Joe Louis suddenly standing in a boxing ring representing America against fascism, or Blue Devils soccer doing something that no one had ever done before with a varsity roster composed almost entirely of immigrant players….it can’t just be about sports.
Sport in American History (SAH): In this political moment, what lessons does One Goal offer the rest of America about community, immigration, and the power of sport?
So at the state championship game in 2015, some 4,500 people sat in the bleachers to watch the Blue Devils take on the Red Storm. No one had ever – ever – seen those kinds of numbers at a soccer game in Maine before. There weren’t that many people at the state football championship that year. So it’s community, right? It isn’t just the parents of the team or even just the friends of the team. It’s people coming from everywhere, and that was one of the most fun things I did when researching the book. Looking at photos of the game’s crowd and tracking them down, talking to them, asking them about the experience. That game provided a profound coming together for Lewiston. But, of course, a soccer championship can’t solve everything – it can’t, again, just be about sports. Community is work. Really, really hard work. A community isn’t just a thing that sits there – it is a living and breathing entity. So a coming together, like what happened in that stadium at that game, doesn’t mean a staying together. There are really painful ruptures in Lewiston throughout this book, and some pretty profound moments of coming together. And I think that’s the big takeaway—to learn from each, and hope that the next rupture is a little less painful, and that the subsequent coming together is a little bit more powerful. Each time. Every time.
Amy Bass is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at The College of New Rochelle. Formerly with NBC, she won an Emmy for her work on the London Olympics in 2012. ONE GOAL is her fourth book.