Grisham’s Timely Reminder of the Power of Sport: A Call to Peace?

June 10, 2021 Updated: June 11, 2021


The publication of a new John Grisham novel is always an exciting event. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is not an exception. The novel, “Sooley,” tells the story of a 17-year-old South Sudanese boy, Samuel Sooleymon, who is selected to play in a basketball tournament in the United States.

While in the United States, his father and sister are slaughtered by rebels fighting a vicious civil war against government forces in South Sudan. His mother and brothers reach a camp for displaced people in Uganda; they are relatively safe but destitute. After the tournament, Sooley is offered a scholarship to study at an American college, where he becomes a famous basketball player, a legend of the sport.

The book is an excellent example of how storytelling can keep a reader enthralled until the last page. In his novel, Grisham provides much interesting information—although not always historically accurate—about the civil war which started soon after South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan on Jul. 9, 2011, following a referendum that resulted in a staggering 98.83 percent of people voting for independence.

The civil war, which lasted until 2018, resulted in approximately 400,000 victims, with more than 4 million people displaced, living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, mainly Uganda. Currently, the country is governed by a coalition of the main opposing parties.

Displaced Sudanese queue to receive humanitarian aid
Displaced Sudanese queue to receive humanitarian aid supplies at the Kalma camp for internally displaced people in Darfur’s state capital Niyala on Oct. 9, 2019. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)

The theme permeating Grisham’s book is the capacity of sport to bring people together and heal conflicts within a nation and between nations. This theme is a timely reminder of the potentially powerful role that sport could play during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide people with a temporary sense of relief and excitement.

Apparently, South Sudan has the highest number of tall people in the world, hence, the interest in basketball which, together with wrestling, is a traditional sport of this young, but traumatised, country.

As skillfully illustrated in Grisham’s book, basketball brings joy to thousands of people who proudly celebrate the exploits of their South Sudanese players and countrymen in the United States. Success at basketball thus contributes to the shaping of a South Sudanese national identity and results in prolonged periods of peace and stability in this troubled land.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to question the validity of Grisham’s theme—that sport is a unifying force in society—now that in the next three months, the world is hosting major sporting events, including the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the European Soccer Championship and, of course, the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan, in the period of Friday, Jul. 23 to Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021.

Of course, Grisham’s theme is not novel. It is believed that even in the Ancient Olympic Games, held in Olympia between the 8th and 4th Centuries BC, all conflicts between the participating city-states were suspended during the Games.

The objective of promoting peace and international friendship was also in the mind of Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he organized an Olympic Committee to hold the first Olympic Games of the modern era in Greece in 1896.

In this context, Wilfried Lemke has argued that “sport is the most unifying and inspiring development and peace tool in the world. No other social activity brings people together in such great numbers and with so much passion and enjoyment …. Regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, sport is enjoyed by all; its reach is unrivalled. More importantly, though, sport promotes universal values that transcend language and culture.”

Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony
General view of the Olympic flame during the Olympic flame handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, in Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece, on March 19, 2020. (Aris Messinis/Pool via Reuters)

Confirming Lemke’s assertion, Paul Feinstein, in a recently published article, lists 30 examples of sporting exploits that brought the world together, highlighting the triumphs of athletes, lionising tolerance, endurance, and persistence, and leading to glory for individual athletes and national pride in the nations where the athletes come from.

However, this sugar-coated view of the role of sports in society may simply be the expression of an expectation rather than a statement of fact. Indeed, sport has often also been used to foment strife among nations and to incite hatred.

Not infrequently, sport functioned as a political weapon to punish the host of the Olympic Games or antagonise participating countries.

For example, the Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were boycotted by the People’s Republic of China because it objected to the participation of athletes from Taiwan. South Africa and Rhodesia were banned from participating in the 1972 and 1976 Games because of their segregationist policies.

The United States boycotted the Moscow Games of 1980 to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union retaliated by refusing to participate in the Los Angeles Games in 1984 because of hostile anti-Soviet propaganda. Additionally, the Games have been tarnished by proven claims of doping by athletes, using performing-enhancing drugs, sex discrimination (countries only sending male teams), and cheating.

But, as Grisham optimistically indicates, basketball has brought the South Sudanese people together and has contributed to a fragile peace between the two major warring factions in that country.

He also wisely confirms that sport can equally be manipulated by big business interests to destroy the future of promising sportspeople who may not be able to handle the fame that comes with success. Indeed, it was fame, inexperience, and gullibility that proved to be the downfall of Grisham’s protagonist, Sooley, who could not resist the temptations of fame and notoriety following his selection to play in the National Basketball Association’s league.

A reading of Sooley reminds us that sporting prowess is a gift that should be nurtured, protected, and honed for positive purposes. But, using the words of U.S. Judge Learned Hand, sport needs to be complemented by a spirit of liberty that “seeks to understand the mind of other men and women” and “weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at The University of Queensland. He served as dean of law and pro vice-chancellor at Murdoch University and has taught extensively across Europe, Asia, and North America. He is the author of short stories and a novel on the origins of the COVID-19 virus, “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.