In the world of Israeli sports, nationalist tensions are set aside and players focus on winning the game. Israeli Arabs and Jews have played together on the soccer field for decades. Major Israeli soccer teams have Arab stars, and there are Jewish players on teams that represent Arab villages. This little-known story of coexistence and cooperation was pitched to and placed in Newsweek’s online edition and on the ABC Radio Network radio program broadcast by popular sports columnist Mitch Albom on January 17.

Here is the story that ran on Newsweek’s online edition on March 20, 2003.

PLAY ON

The NCAA tournament should begin as scheduled. It might be a little discomforting, but we might as well celebrate the American way of life

NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE

March 20 – The Celtics and Bruins have exited the joint and Boston’s FleetCenter is bracing for an invasion of far less familiar breeds – Cowboys, Quakers, Jaspers, Panthers and Orangemen.

NOT TO MENTION a Crimson Tide that isn’t quite as dangerous as some of the toxic tides that have washed into Boston Harbor through the years.

The FleetCenter may be ready for March Madness. But outside, on the streets of Boston – one of the nation’s most liberal cities, a center of antiwar protest and the site of next year’s Democratic Convention – the very term March Madness is rife with double meaning.

Admittedly, it is a strange and more than a little discomforting to think that at the very time we hit Baghdad with our “shock and awe” attack, fans could be celebrating fast breaks and three-pointers. Still, it would have been folly to have postponed the NCAA tournament out of respect for the peril faced by American soldiers (or anyone else). There is not necessarily any more peril on the first day of a war than on the last. And unless we want to shut down America’s vast entertainment industry for the duration, a blow our economy can hardly absorb, we might as well celebrate the American way of life, a faith for which most of our soldiers believe they are waging war.

So after an appropriate moment of silence, a passionate anthem or “God Bless America,” maybe even a “U-S-A!” chant, folks should feel free to give full vent to all the joyous passion that college basketball, at its best, represents. There’s no comfort for our fighting men in us fans faking somber. (Let the Academy Awards do somber; they are actors and can summon any emotion they put their mind to.) Indeed, it’s possible that the only emotional salve available to our soldiers over the next few days will come in the form of the cascade of basketball scores from home, revealing just how they are doing in their unit pools.

The intersection of sports and politics, especially when that politics involves war, is treacherous terrain. Our stadiums, arenas and ballparks functioned very well as a post-9-11 gathering places for some kind of national catharsis. But it is entirely different matter when sports becomes integrated with national policy, just another tool in the arsenal. Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, punishment for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, may have had the moral high ground, but it never accomplished much or led to much more than a tit-for-tat boycott of our L.A. Games four years later, while depriving some gifted American athletes of a chance of a lifetime. That doesn’t mean sports can’t be an effective weapon. The vast sports boycott that rose in opposition to South African apartheid contributed mightily to the emotional toll and dispiriting sense of isolation in that country. But it was effective because it was part and parcel of a vast worldwide initiative against the policies of South Africa.

Using sports as a wild card, outside the framework of coherent foreign policy, is pretty futile. I was a correspondent on the front lines in Central America 25 years ago during the Sandinista Revolution, an American foreign-policy fiasco in which the United States backed the brutal and corrupt Somoza dictatorship. By the time the Carter administration pulled the plug on Somoza, both the public-relations war – an American TV reporter was murdered on camera by Somoza’s troops – and the real one on the battlefield were both irrevocably lost. Six months later, the U.S., seeking to make a gesture if not exactly amends, sent baseball’s Baltimore Orioles with Nicaraguan national hero Denny Martinez to Managua for an exhibition series against the national team. After the games, the Orioles’ popularity rose to an all-time high there. But I couldn’t detect one iota of abatement in the fervent anti-Americanism that had rooted there.

The greatest power of sports often comes when athletes operate outside official channels. When left to their own devices, competitors can sometimes transcend all differences – racial, religious, political, national – on the playing field. I still get chills up my spine when I recall the two Koreas marching into the Olympic Stadium in Sydney arm in arm under a unification flag. Unfortunately, that symbolism hasn’t altered the political landscape of the regional divide. Nevertheless, it was beautifully orchestrated, free of cynicism and replete with genuine hope.

There are too many places in this world where hope is not easily discerned these days. Sometimes sports alone finds itself exempt from the ugly passions that govern day-to-day life. In Israel, numerous Israeli Jews play professional soccer for teams in Palestinian cities and towns like Nazareth.

“They just try to ignore politics completely,” says Ofer Ronen-Abels, a journalist who covers soccer for the Jerusalem Post. “And once a player puts on the colors of his team, he’s not going to get any aggro from the fans of his team.”

At least, not intentionally. On a few occasions, says Ronen-Abels, Jewish players have found themselves blocked by rioters from reaching their teams and have even been the target of rock-throwing incidents. “But as soon as they’d realize who was in the car, they’d move aside.”

They love soccer in Iraq, too. Only a few weeks ago there was a game played in northern Iraq – and competed without incident – between a team from Baghdad and a Kurdish team. And it isn’t difficult to imagine that someday America’s national soccer team will play their Iraqi counterpart, as it did Iran in World Cup ’98, and, at least symbolically, bury historical grievances and animosities on the field. Personally, I just wish we could fast-forward to that day.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.