Foreign influx is welcome in sports

Foreign influx is welcome in sports

Published Apr. 11, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Watching the final round of the Masters golf tournament — as a South African edged out a couple of Australians, while the only American to finish among the top eight, Tiger Woods, watched — got me thinking: Sports have a funny relationship with geopolitics.

Golf, the announcers reminded viewers more than once during the Masters, has become an international sport. The number of folks with accents represented at Augusta underscored that point — and that’s not even including Billy Payne, the Georgian who oversees the event.

Increasingly, sports leagues showcase international players, and fans root for them enthusiastically. In some instances, though, those same supporters spend their non-sports hours fearing incursions by the foreign-born and the prospect of “European-style socialism” invading U.S. shores.

Many Europeans see America as being particularly insular and inward-focused on this front — blurring (and in extreme cases, erasing) the line between patriotism and xenophobia. To some, President Barack Obama’s popularity abroad is by itself grounds for suspicion about his policies. After all, this is the guy who declared himself a “citizen of the world” (which sounds pretty innocuous, actually) during his campaign.

Yet some of those people can doubtless be found in expensive courtside seats cheering for the Lakers’ favorite Spaniard, Pau Gasol, or Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, a native of Germany.


Indeed, earlier this year an analyst said matter-of-factly that Kevin Love, of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was having a season that qualified him as “the best American-born white player since Larry Bird.” Since John Stockton was essentially a Bird contemporary, that’s probably accurate. But the more interesting point is all the superstars — Nowitzki, Gasol, Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Steve Nash (Canada) — that excludes.

Sports have always been somewhat unique in terms of delivering “We are the World” moments. Bud Greenspan’s scintillating Olympic documentaries often underscored how joys and sorrows, at least in competition, easily bridge national borders.

Even Sunday, watching Masters champ Charl Schwartzel exult in his victory, which drew the tournament’s second-highest rating in a decade, and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy endure a devastating final-round collapse, you couldn’t help but feel one’s pain and the other’s elation. There was also some symmetry in Schwartzel’s feat coming a half-century after countryman Gary Player became the first international golfer to win at Augusta.

Still, flip over to Fox News Channel instead of Fox Sports Network, and one comes away with a different view of the world — one usually awash in chaos.

At the same time, the major sports leagues, like movie studios, television, theme parks and just about every other form of mass entertainment, now see their business as catering to a global audience.

The New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors recently played the NBA’s first regular-season game in London, something the NFL has done annually since 2007. There’s no mystery here: International reach means potentially expanding their audience base and tapping into new revenue sources, in the same way Disney has plans to open a theme park in Shanghai.

Of all the top sports, the NFL is the only one without a large contingent of international players. Baseball rosters include plenty of names from Latin America and Asia; hockey has long offered a mix of Canadians and Europeans; and soccer has caught on in the U.S. thanks, in part, to the popularity of players from abroad.

Tough economic times can lead to nations looking inward, and based on polls, the “America first” movement appears to be building. A large segment of the U.S. population either views those outside our borders warily or doesn’t give the rest of the world much thought until a major disaster strikes. It took a staggering confluence of events — from Middle East tumult to the earthquake in Japan — to shift America’s attention to international news, and even then, such matters can only compete for so long with Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan.

Of course, that hard-hearted worldview appears to soften considerably toward immigrants who are 6-foot-11 and have a nice shooting touch, can reliably hit a 12-foot putt or know how to throw a wicked breaking ball.

Otherwise, USA! USA!

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Recommended viewing: Eighty-two games and nine months after LeBron James’ “The Decision,” the Miami Heat finally get to figure out if their free-agent signings will pay off. The NBA playoffs open this weekend, and TNT has the Eastern Conference Finals if the Heat make it that far.