Review of Flashpoint

Catsam, Derek Charles. Flashpoint: How a Little-Known Sporting Event Fueled America’s Anti-Apartheid Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021. Pp. xxviii + 213. 10 unnumbered pages of plates and index. $34.00 hardcover, $32.00 e-book.

Reviewed by Tony Calandrillo

In Flashpoint: How a Little-Known Sporting Event Fueled America’s Anti-Apartheid Movement, Derek Charles Catsam, Professor of History at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, chronicles how the South African National Rugby Team’s 1981 US tour ignited a stagnant anti-apartheid movement in the United States, forcing the country to confront the Reagan Administration’s policy of “Constructive Engagement.” Yet, this book is more than merely an examination of the American anti-apartheid movement in the early 1980s. It is also a snapshot of South African Rugby history, and an indictment of that organization’s complicity in South African government’s larger policy of racial segregation. To this end, Catsam’s book provides an interesting look into the South African Rugby scene during the 1970s and earlier, as well as the issues with the tour of New Zealand that took place immediately before the Springboks arrived in the United States.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

Flashpoint is organized chronologically, beginning with South Africa planning for the trips to New Zealand and the United States. It then takes the reader through the problems with a series of games between the Republic of Ireland and the Springboks in South Africa before traveling with the Springboks to New Zealand and the United States. The last three chapters of the book comprise the bulk of Catsam’s story, illuminating the beginning of the resistance in the United States, taking the reader through the rugby matches, and concluding with the courtroom battle in Albany.

Catsam proves himself to be a very good storyteller, guiding the reader through a very complicated tale that lies at the intersection of politics, law, and sport. There are many moving parts to this story, but Catsam navigates the complexities involved with considerable ease. During this narrative, he seamlessly shifts back and forth between the worlds of rugby, international relations, American politics, protest movements, and the courtroom. In doing this, the author manages to capture key events, while also giving the reader a look inside the issues from the bottom up.

One of the virtues of this approach is that the actual, and somewhat uneventful, rugby matches take a backseat to the things actually happening off of the field. For example, Catsam devotes considerable space in the chapter regarding the Springboks’ trip to New Zealand to the protests surrounding that leg of the tour. In the context of the larger book, this provides the reader with an appetizer before the author delves into the main part of his work: the trip to America.

Catsam does an excellent job capturing the mood of the United States in the early 1980s, both towards the sport of rugby and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He also explains why South Africans chose to undertake this tour, despite the possibility of opposition. As the author relates:

Sometimes portrayed as an oddity, sometimes, as an absurdity sometimes as a joke, and always within the context of ongoing politics, the tour of the United States was understood for what it was, a ridiculous effort for the Springboks to gain something akin to legitimacy, yet also a legitimate political challenge in which the Springboks, and thus South Africa, would achieve the imprimatur of the Reagan administration and thus a certain level of credibility, if not endorsement (76-77).

Yet, the tour went on.

Catsam successfully describes how the American leg of the tour unfolded. He begins with the Springboks’ low-key arrival in Hawaii before chronicling the team’s descent into the American cauldron in Los Angeles, where African-American Mayor Tom Bradley actually prevented the team from playing in the city after their flight from Hawaii, forcing the Springboks to change their plans and fly to Chicago instead. Chicago proved no friendlier, with the scheduled match eventually being moved to Wisconsin. The Chicago experience allows Catsam to show the strength of his work in his Catsam’s description of the reception the Springboks received in the Windy City illustrates the strength of his work. The team was able to walk around anonymously for the most part, attending a Chicago Cubs game, shopping in downtown Chicago, and even attending receptions. He captures the circumstances perfectly when he observes that the Springboks were, “Heroes among white South Africans, pariahs among large numbers of New Zealanders, these big-shouldered gents were simply anonymous in the City of the Big Shoulders,” (87). Another strength of the book is evident here, as Catsam used plentiful interviews with the South African participants to gain their perspectives.

Catsam does, however, see the beginnings of the American anti-apartheid movement in Chicago. He relates the story of how protestors discovered the location of the team, initiating protests any time they could. Catsam also emphasizes that Americans really did not know anything about rugby, as evidenced by Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus’ comment that he would approve a game in his state so that a multiracial American squad could beat the South Africans at their own game. Eventually, after much negotiation, the match scheduled for Chicago would be played in Racine, Wisconsin, creating another trend: matches being moved to smaller, and sometimes more obscure, locations.

When the tour got to Albany, New York, the Springboks were faced with a legal challenge that piled on top of the various political and social challenges that the tour had already faced. Catsam handles this part of the story adeptly, as the matches were eventually permitted after the Springboks prevailed in a court case that found its way to the US Supreme Court, with none other than Thurgood Marshall supporting the South African team’s right to play the matches over the objections of New York governor Hugh Carey.

In his assessment of the tour, Catsam gets to the very heart of the issue for the South Africans, the Springboks, and the Americans when he says that, “…the Springboks needed allies, and the United States, both in rugby terms and politically, had proven to be such an ally,” (144). The author brings the multitude of issues to a head in this part of the book, taking the American government to task for allowing the tour and, in the author’s estimation, fully understanding that they were indeed supporting the Apartheid regime by welcoming the Springbok rugby team. Catsam also suggests that the American government knew the protestors were correct in their assessments, hence the constant movement of the matches.

Catsam does a fantastic job in bringing to light a forgotten, yet profoundly important, episode that sits at the intersection of sport, politics, history, and society. He takes an event with many moving parts and makes it accessible and understandable, effectively placing it in the larger context of international relations, American foreign policy, and the history of a then-marginal-but-now-growing sport in the United States. The book should be of interest to the general reader and anyone interested in US-South African relations, anti-Apartheid movements, and the history of rugby.

Tony Calandrillo is a Doctor of Letters candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, whose research involves the intersection of American foreign policy and sports. His dissertation is an examination of baseball as a tool of American foreign policy in the context of International Relations theory

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