Rice of the Rovers | ‘Condi’ cottons to Lancashire lads

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Mixed messages for Rice in England’s northwest, from protests concerning the U.S. war in Iraq (left) to another addition to her replica-jersey collection. Blackburn manager Mark Hughes, left, and Straw do the honors. (Lancashire Evening Telegraph and AP)

Blackburn, England | The visit would not exactly qualify as ping-pong diplomacy, but sport as a means of high-level diplomatic exchange continues with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice‘s excursion to what has been termed “the center of the world.”

Rather than putting out fires in Davos or Doha, Rice played the role of exchange student late last week in the northwest of England. The trip had been organized so British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw could show Rice his native Blackburn, as Rice had escorted Straw through her hometown Birmingham, Alabama, last year. The diplomatic duo had taken in a University of Alabama football game, although Rice never attended the school; she went to the University of Denver, her precociousness as a scholar allowing her to start at 15. Straw, variously introduced on the Alabama trip as “Mr. Shaw” and “Mr. Snow,” called the gridiron clash “rugby with commercials.”

Returning the favor, Straw and Rice agreed that she would visit the northwest, her trip timed to the fixture between Blackburn and Wigan Athletic. With the Premiership schedule ever in flux to accommodate the maw that is SkyTV, programmers shifted the date to Monday night. Thus, the two ended up standing on an empty pitch last Friday watching two junior sides kick it about. Blackburn goalkeeper and U.S. international Brad Friedel gave Rice a pair of goalkeeping gloves, perhaps to defend against the own goals from Cabinet mate Donald Rumsfeld. (We made up this last bit.)

While Rice’s visit was met by protests (“We want chapatis, no more Rice,” shouted Muslim students outside Pleckgate High School), she and Straw appeared to be building a friendship through the cultural and sporting exchange:

They are a bit of an odd couple: an elegantly dressed African American woman who grew up in the segregated South and a plain blue-suit-and-tie Englishman who carries a red wooden box as a briefcase. Rice, 51, is a former academic whose sentences sometimes get tangled in modifiers, caveats and endless clauses; Straw, 59, is an experienced and candid politician whose skillful turns of phrase make good sound bites.

The two are linked, geographically, through their relationship to cotton. Blackburn-area mills spun the fibers picked by Rice’s forebears. Richard Arkwright‘s 1769 patent specification for a spinning machine helped launch an industrial revolution that made Britain’s northern cities and midlands seem like the engine of world economy. Mahatma Gandhi visited Lancashire mills in 1931, to see unemployed workers affected by his advocacy of hand-spinning and boycott of British-made garments.

An unknown Blackburn-area women’s team in an undated photo. (Provided by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council for use in the Cotton Town digitisation project: http://www.cottontown.org/)

Mills and the factory system also created an ideal breeding ground for football. Hunter Davies, in his material history of the game, Boots, Balls and Haircuts (2003), gives prominence to role of the north of England in spreading the game from public schools and in professionalizing the sport. In addition, “The idea of a mass audience had not existed until the northern and Midland urban clubs arrived on the scene,” Davies writes. “Mass audiences came from massive factories, massed industrial towns and back-to-back mass housing” (33–34). Facilitating this new working culture, development of transport and the innovation of half-day Saturdays helped create leisure space for the rise of spectator sport.

Blackburn Rovers, especially, were among the game’s early powers. An original member of the Football League, formed in 1888, they won the FA Cup five times between 1884 and 1891. With wartime, the mill system as well as munitions factories sustained the game by giving women opportunities to play. By 1920, an estimated 150 women’s teams were active in Britain, many affiliated with factories.

Even now that the domestic garment industry is long gone—cast to the winds of globalization—local football still feels the effects. Longtime Blackburn supporter Bob Snape links the decline of the cotton era to changes in atmosphere at Ewood Park, the Rovers’ ground since 1890.

Each time I see black and white television snippets of football from the nineteen-sixties they evoke a different era, one that perhaps only came to an end with Rupert Murdoch and the Premier League. Half-remembered impressions of grounds, crowds and away trips now recall something I didn’t fully understand at the time, which was that the decline of the Lancashire town clubs was coinciding with the passing of the cotton era and the end of a way of watching football that had changed little since my grandfather was a boy.

We are disappointed that Rice lost her chance to see a live football match. She has stated an ambition one day to become commissioner of the National Football League, to add to previous vocations as concert pianist and figure skater. But we would like her to consider all the football codes before taking the plan further.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Brian says:

    I’d love her to become commissioner of the NFL. And Bush himself of Major League Baseball. Preferably by next week, if at all possible!

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