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Opinion

How Pickleball Can Help Bring Our Country Together

by Johnny Barth on

"All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today."

The unthinkable just took place. Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a somber Congress in late November, 1963, having just inherited the role of Commander-In-Chief. Just five days earlier, President John F. Kennedy was tragically murdered.

The gravity of the Kennedy assassination would usher in a new age for many. A new cynicism in our country would emerge. The ideals and optimism that often characterized the belief of this great nation would begin to erode. As many would say, this event was the mark of a "loss of Innocence" for America, as political instability and violence were now top-of-mind when previously considered unthinkable.

Out of the tragedy, Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat) would gain bipartisan support, going on to win the 1964 presidential election in a landslide.

Yet, in the midst of this growing national uncertainty, an innocent game would be invented by a Republican politician on the other side of the country.

Joel Pritchard (Republican) had just won re-election to the Washington House of Representatives in 1964, a seat he would win again before eventually making it to the U.S. House of Representatives and even becoming Lieutenant Governor of Washington.

As legend would have it, in the summer of 1965 after a day of golfing (plus some ensuing boredom at home from his teenager), Joel rummaged together the elements of what would go on to become the fastest growing sport in the nation today.

A simple joy born amidst sobering concerns.

Summer days in the northern reaches of Bainbridge Island, Washington, can be long - reaching 16 hours. Rather than allowing worry regarding the state of the nation rob him of peace, Joel (along with his friends and family) chose to press into the enjoyment and camaraderie that many of us have been enthralled with today.

From an outsider’s perspective, Joel Pritchard and Lyndon B. Johnson are a stark clash of styles:

  • LBJ was born into poverty in rural Texas. Joel, born into a prominent family from Seattle.
  • Johnson pursued campaigns on Civil Rights, international policies and war, as well as the "Space Race." Pritchard’s most recognized achievements revolve around environmental conservation, outdoor recreation (surprise surprise), and the creation of the North Cascades National Park.
  • In their legislative work, Johnson developed a reputation for persuasiveness and even at times intimidation to gain support in his ambitious agendas. Pritchard leveraged collaboration and pragmatism to earn bipartisan support.

Outside of political careers, it would seem that they had no common ground, though one common denominator between the two remained. Their fondness of sport.

It is well documented that Lyndon liked to hit the links. Personally, I’d like to think that the time on the golf course afforded Pritchard the clarity of mind he needed to develop the prototype for pickleball on that fateful summer day.

While a lot has changed in the world since the 1960s, the threats to peace in our nation (and nations abroad) persist. The polarization of our political landscape continues to grow with the impending Biden vs Trump election rematch this year (plus another Kennedy throwback).

As the gulf grows between people and the values that each of us hold – what can bridge the divide?

Over the past couple of years, pundits and publications alike are suggesting that Pickleball may well be the answer (CNN, Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker for example).

Pickleball has even become a weekly staple for bipartisan senators in the nation’s capital, as featured recently by NPR. 

"It's kind of hard to treat people in an untoward way if you've been out on the pickleball court, on a mountain bike trail, spent time with them … we need more of that." Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

Pickleball has now swept the nation. It has been played at the National Mall, on Wall Street, and in communities throughout the country.

Take this as your friendly reminder that during this election season, even though you may disagree with someone else’s beliefs, you can all equally find peace on the pickleball courts.

Pickleball is the great equalizer. A unicorn-of-a-sport that has the ability to gather players of all demographics, personalities, and abilities. Though we tend to gravitate towards people within our comfort zones of familiarity – pickleball brings people together in unprecedented ways.

While our personal differences have always been present, common ground for all individuals has always been there. It persists even under the most intense division our nation has seen.

When John F. Kennedy made his inaugural address in 1961, he famously quoted "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." 

Take this as your friendly reminder that during this election season, even though you may disagree with someone else’s beliefs, you can all equally find peace on the pickleball courts.

At least that’s the way I believe Joel Pritchard felt.

Thoughts on Politics, Peace, Pickleball? What are you seeing in your communities?

Find me on X or Instagram or e-mail me at Johnny5pointOHpb@gmail.com.

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