Term Paper: Sports in Epic of America, James Truslow

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Sports

In Epic of America, James Truslow Adams coined the term American Dream, writing that it is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement," (cited by Library of Congress, 2002). The idea that "all men are created equal" originated long before Adams published Epic of America in 1931, extended to the roots of American history in the Declaration of Independence. What set America apart from its Old World counterpart was the leveling out of social class -- at least in theory. Adams continued, "It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately," (cited by Library of Congress, 2002). Ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all that were embedded into the Constitution nevertheless failed to apply in practice. Not only did the Constitution permit discrimination on the grounds of gender but it also enabled race-based discrimination until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. However, even the 14th Amendment to the Constitution did not eradicate racism from American soil. Men like Jack Thrice knew all too well that race determined one's ability to pursue and fulfill the American Dream.

Although the American Dream has proved itself to be paradoxical and unattainable to many on the basis of race, class or gender, the American Dream is in a continual state of evolution and progress. Jack Thrice's story illustrates four main features of the American consciousness. First, the American Dream is not about material achievements per se, and the "rags to riches" ideal is more of a metaphor than a proscription for success. For many individuals, the American Dream is more about fame than about fortune. Second, the American Dream is in a continual state of evolution, marking a society willing and ready to adapt according to changing social values. Third, American society changes because of grassroots-level movements. The fact that the American Dream can stay alive in spite of the nation's obvious faults is testimony to the its enduring value. Finally, Americans respond well to both Christian and cowboy mythos.

Wright Thompson's essay "A Man Who Made Good" shows how America may not be as much of a meritocracy as Adams may have imagined. Working hard does not necessarily confer advancement opportunities for all citizens. Social, poltical, and economic power have eluded some of the most hard-working Americans. Moreover, race can become a serious impediment for people like Thrice. Thomspon points out that Thrice's mother knew that blacks would have to toughen up, not taking for granted that abolition meant equal rights. Indeed, for decades after Jack Thrice was killed on the playing field discrimination was openly practiced in American public schools, in the workplace, and in almost every arena of American life.

Sports have become an apt metaphor for racial struggle in America. It is through sports that many African-Americans have been able to achieve the American Dream. African-Americans have been barred access to the social capital required to succeed in other white-dominated professional areans. The gridiron was one arena in which blacks could prove themselves, fighting alongside white teammates and offering indelible visible evidence that racism was alive and well in the United States. Thrice's death may very well have been an accident but the vehemence with which Minnesota attacked him signals the deep-rooted antagonism toward non-whites in America.

In Epic of America, Adams warned that "too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful" of the American Dream (cited by Library of Congress, 2002). He would be as correct in 2007 as he was in 1931. Thrice, as Thompson points out, "knew race was always an issue," (p. 215). He was under pressure to be a representative of his race, and so was his cousin George. The Thrices illustrate a story too familiar to African-American families: the American Dream is a white dream.

Granted, Thompson's essay offers hope. The American Dream has evolved in accordance with changing values and social norms. The Civil Rights movements marked a great leap forward in providing more truly equal rights for all American citizens. Racism is not nearly as poignant in America, especially in the realm of professional sports, as it was when Thrice was brutally tackled. Yet Thompson's story teaches Americans to remember stories like Thrice's. Americans still have a long way to go before "each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position," (Adams, cited by Library of Congress, 2002).

Americans are fascinated by rags-to-riches tales, tales that show how citizens an overcome the most direly unfortunate circumstances to achieve the Dream. Immigrants often fulfilled the American Dream by rising from rags to riches. In many ways the story of Jack Thrice builds on this aspect of the American Dream. As Thompson notes, "The Thrice family was going places," (p. 216). They would rise above, move to the big city, "get that education," and live the American Dream (Thompson, p. 216). Americans love rooting for the underdog because the rags-to-riches mythos is so powerful in the collective consciousness of the nation. The more adversity an individual must overcome, the better the American hero. The quest is not for riches alone: "It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order," (Adams, cited by Library of Congress, 2002). Bill Gates does not qualify as an American Dream fairy tale because he did not overcome adversity. Thrice does, even if he failed.

Thompson shows that Thrice did not fail, however. Part of Adams' definition of the American Dream was to be "be recognized by others." And Thrice was certainly recognized by others in having a stadium named after him and an imposing statue to remind Iowa State of his perpetual presence. Thrice became an American icon. Thus, Thompson suggests that even if Thrice failed to achieve material success, he is nevertheless emblematic of the American Dream: he is an American hero. One of the ways Thompson underscores this idea is by using Christian symbolism. Thrice Stadium was "christened," and his life was "a story of sacrifice," (Thompson, p. 221; 220).

Americans identify with Christian symbolism and Christian values because those are the values that underwrote the American Dream in the first place. The American Dream is quintessentially Protestant: emphasizing that hard work can help any man (or woman) get ahead; that God's gifts are available to all citizens. The Protestant work ethic guides the American consciousness as much as the American Dream does. Yet Christian ideals in America are as spurious as the ideal that "all men are created equal." Americans have greatly contradicted their Christian ideals by upholding blatantly un-Christian social norms like racism and sexism and still cling to a Christian identity while at the same time advocating religious plurality.

The story of Jack Thrice therefore shows that the American Dream is a paradox. On the one hand, Thrice gained recognition and public esteem. He has achieved the celebrity status so many Americans crave, though on a small scale. He overcame difficulties even though his life was cut short, and he was a "man who made good" because he inspired his family and other African-Americans to reach for the stars too. On the other hand, Thrice's story is a tragedy and so too are the stories of men like Jack Thrice who worked hard but failed to beat a system that was stacked against them.

Thompson's tale also teaches that the American Dream evolves and parallels American social and political progress. The events that occurred at Iowa State in 1923 could not foreseeably occur today. The law, let alone social sanctions, would prevent racial slurs from becoming as public as they were in 1923. African-American athletes are heralded, celebrated, revered: not silenced, suppressed, and killed as they were in the 1920s. Therefore, Americans have made distinct social progress even if the society is not yet perfect. Sports have also evolved. The roll block Thrice performed is no longer legal in football. Referees would have mitigated play before it grew as out of hand as the Thrice incident.

When race-related incidents occur today, they are scorned. The Rodney King trial and other cases of police brutality or racial profiling show that the public has a far lower tolerance for racism than it did just a few decades ago. What made Thrice's mother move the family to Cleveland would have riled her up today: to stop playing the white man's game and start assuming that the rights and privileges guaranteed in the constitution will hold up in every day life.

The American Dream has remained characteristically materialistic and centered on fame and recognition as it was in Thrice's day. Yet the means to achieve those ends have changed dramatically. Anti-trust laws broke up the monopolies that granted certain privilged businesspeople the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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