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Sept. 24, 2022

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In Our View: Can our state sport get America out of a pickle?

The Columbian
Published:

Suddenly, pickleball is everywhere. At least it seems that way.

The genteel sport with the funny name is the subject of a story from The Seattle Times that dominated The Columbian’s Health & Science section last week. It is the topic for an editorial from The Chicago Tribune. It is the theme of recent news reports from around the country trumpeting that “pickleball classes are a smash hit” or providing instructions on how to build a court or mentioning a city council approving a new facility.

Perhaps most notably, it was the subject of a July article in The New Yorker under the headline, “Can Pickleball save America?” The subhead: “The sport, beloved for its democratic spirit, could unite the country — if it doesn’t divide itself first.”

We’ll get to that bit of hyperbole in a minute. First a short primer — and a reminder that pickleball was born in Washington.

Pickleball is a distant relative of tennis, played with paddles and a Wiffle ball on a slightly smaller court. Competitors hit the ball over the net, with the Wiffle ball requiring finesse more than speed or power. You don’t need to be Serena Williams to track down a shot and return it to your opponent. Because of that, the sport appeals to a wide range of ages and athletic abilities.

All of this has its genesis in a Bainbridge Island backyard in 1965, where a couple neighbors invented the sport. Last month, ESPN sent a reporter to the Puget Sound area to explore pickleball’s origins.

And why not? Each of the past two years, pickleball has been deemed “the fastest growing sport in the United States” by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. And this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill declaring pickleball Washington’s official state sport, embracing our heritage as the game’s birthplace.

“Everybody can play — grandmas, kids, nieces — from age 3 to 100,” Inslee told ESPN. “That’s a pretty wonderful thing.”

In recent years, The Columbian has reported on the opening of pickleball courts in Ridgefield, north-central Vancouver, Washougal . . . they are everywhere, reflecting the sport’s egalitarian nature.

Which brings us back to the idea of pickleball saving America.

Admittedly, it is a far-fetched notion. But, as writer Sarah Larson notes in the article for The New Yorker: “Robert D. Putnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone,’ from 2000, mourns the loss of beloved community groups — a bridge club in Pennsylvania, an N.A.A.C.P. chapter in Roanoke, a sewing charity league in Dallas — which, for decades, fostered norms of reciprocity, trustworthiness, and general good will. A craving for such feelings is a key part of pickleball’s popularity.”

One enthusiast told the author: “A lot of people think we’re going to have a civil war if this election is close. We’ve got to get people out there playing pickleball with people who will vote the other way, so they don’t want to kill each other.”

It probably is not that simple, but there is a grain of truth there.

As a columnist in The Washington Post recently put it: “When we fail to meaningfully connect with one another, we can’t reap the benefits of trust, reciprocity and cooperation.” Yes, she was writing about pickleball.

Whether pickleball can bridge the cavernous gaps in our society remains to be seen. But with more and more courts popping up, and more and more people playing, and people of all ages and abilities able to participate, it’s not a bad idea.

We don’t know whether pickleball can save America. But it can’t hurt.

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