My book club meets tonight and we'll be discussing Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. The women in my group are not sports or tennis fans, so the book's brief mention of international basketball probably won't come up. So that part of this important look at how the world has changed will get shunted aside to discuss the economic and political ramifications of his theory/observations, and admittedly they are much more important issues. But after my defense of foreign players in U.S. college tennis in May, I was eager to find vindication in Friedman's brief sports reference, and I did. (Pages 250 and 251 for those of you browsing at Borders or Barnes and Noble.) I'll quote briefly.
You could find no better metaphor for the way the rest of the world can now compete head-to-head more effectively than ever with America than the struggles of the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 2004. The American team, made up of NBA stars, limped home to a bronze medal after losing to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina...
There is something about post-World War II America that reminds me of the classic wealthy family that by the third generation starts to squander its wealth. The members of the first generation are nose-to-the-grindstone innovators; the second generation holds it all together; then their kids come along and get fat, dumb, and lazy and slowly squander it all. I know that is both overly harsh and a gross generalization, but there is, nevertheless, some truth in it. American society started to coast in the 1990s, when our third postwar generation came of age. The dot-com boom left too many people with the impression that they could get rich without investing in hard work. All it took was an MBA and a quick IPO, or one NBA contract, and you were set for life. But while we were admiring the flat world we had created, a lot of people in India, China and Eastern Europe were busy figuring out how to take advantage of it.
Friedman is no leftist, anti-American zealot. He refers often to the United States as the world's "Dream Factory." But what he calls "a huge sense of entitlement and complacency" could find us falling behind, building walls instead of digging deep.
Other than perhaps soccer, there is no sport more global than tennis. One of the great strengths of the United States that Friedman cites is its system of higher education. Welcoming tennis players from other countries to our institutions is good for us--they see a different America than the one on CNN--and good for them--they get a chance to acquire skills and connections to help them become innovators and positive role models. Or maybe, cynically, they just help their school win an NCAA title, raise the level of competition for everyone, and go back to their home country better tennis players. I hope it's the former, but even if it's the latter, I suspect Friedman would approve.