International Men

March 30, 2014

From the Editor: Sports and Geopolitics

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter

This column originally appears in the April 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

It should have been a meaningless game. But with their homeland possibly on the brink of war with Russia, the Ukrainian soccer team turned a friendly exhibition against the United States into a statement of unity.

Ukraine defeated the U.S. 2-0 in a game March 6 that originally was scheduled to be played in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, but was moved to Cyprus due to the political unrest stemming from an overthrown president and neighboring Russia's military advance into Crimea.

Before the national anthems, Ukraine's players came onto the field to chants of "Ukraine is one" from people holding banners with similar expressions. Even in a meaningless game, it sent a powerful message to see athletes from a divided country link arms in oneness. In a contained and non-threatening environment, sports trumped geopolitics.

It's frightening to see tensions rise in Eastern Europe while at the same time so much remains unresolved in the Middle East. It's sad to see tribal rifts and poverty linger in many African countries. And yet, it's uplifting to see athletes emerge from troubled regions to share a global platform with the superpowers.

The international friendly in March was meant to prepare the U.S. for the FIFA World Cup this summer (June 12-July 13) in Brazil. Hopefully by then, diplomacy will have prevailed and escalation of the conflict will have been avoided. But with political, social and economic uncertainty in many parts of the world, an event of such magnitude promises to carry greater meaning than just athletic competition.

As the World Cup winds to a close in Brazil, here in the U.S., the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship will start July 10 in Denver.

Four years ago, the Iroquois Nationals turned the World Championship into a platform on sovereignty after they were refused entry into England on their Haudenosaunee-issued passports.

This summer, all eyes in the lacrosse world will be on Uganda and its Dream 2014 campaign to become the first African team to play internationally.

Fields of Growth International, a lacrosse volunteer corps founded in 2009, has done tremendous work in Uganda, a country wounded by years of civil unrest perpetuated most recently by the Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army. Not only has Fields of Growth established a lacrosse compound in Kampala, but it also has built a school for impoverished children of the Kkindu Village in Masaka.

And yet, shortly after Fields of Growth reached its minimum fundraising threshold to send a team to Denver — for visa purposes, organizers have to produce sufficient evidence they could have enough money to bring the team back to Uganda —President Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-gay bill in late February that strengthened already strict laws against homosexuals. The legislation imposes jail terms up to life for "aggravated homosexuality," including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive. It also criminalizes lesbianism for the first time.

In a press statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a repeal of the law that "blatantly violates human rights obligations" and "threatens a dangerous slide backward in Uganda's commitment to protecting the human rights of its people." Uganda's move to criminalize homosexuality could complicate the relationship between the two countries and, in turn, imperiled the Dream 2014 campaign and Fields of Growth operations, associate director Aimee Dixon said.

"We are monitoring the situation very closely," Dixon said. "The legislation will undoubtedly have a strong impact on our ground operations in Uganda."

Perhaps this will be just another obstacle to overcome. Maybe we'll see "Uganda is one" signs as defenseman Otim Ronald — whose father was beaten to death by the LRA, whose malaria-stricken sister drowned after fainting near a stream and whose mother died of AIDS — leads Uganda onto the lacrosse field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo.

Then I'll be reminded of these words from Fields of Growth founder and current Wheeling Jesuit coach Kevin Dugan, who was interviewed by Lacrosse Magazine's Jac Coyne in September.

"Whether it's a kid coming through a gang-ridden neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, or a former child soldier in Uganda who is now finding community through lacrosse," Dugan said, "it's that power of human connection that can be celebrated through sport."

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