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A best-selling author and anthropologist talks about how the ball bounced into human culture—and how One World Futbol is scoring new goals.

By Corbyn Hightower

We’ve all done it: sat at a desk, crumpled up a sheet of paper, taken aim at the nearest trashcan and swoosh (“Nothin’ but net! The crowd goes wild!”). Balls of all types are intuitively appealing to us, because “they’re kinetically fascinating, with their unique capacity to roll, bounce, spin [and] ricochet,” says anthropologist John Fox, whose 8-year-old son’s question about why we play with them inspired him to write The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.

That mammalian impulse to play with a ball has been around since the first cavemen challenged each other to see who could throw the pig bladder farther, and it continues in every human culture throughout our modern world. We made them out of all sorts of low-tech, found objects. In the absence of “real” balls, people have created them from plastic bags tied into tightly bundled spheres, woven reeds and even lumps of clay. After all, it wasn’t until the advent of rubber manufacturing that people were easily able to standardize ball creation for use in organized play.

Most balls used in sports today are incredibly high tech. Depending on the requirements of the sport in question, certain types of balls can be made to maximize bounce, distance, aerodynamics, and even loft and backspin. “Obviously, the quality of play of a ball like that is going to be far superior to any low-end ball,” Fox says, “which allows kids to reach a higher level with their game.”

The short lifespan of traditional balls and the expense of replacing them mean young people in disadvantaged communities are left to improvise. Soccer, known in most of the world as “football” or “futbol,” is the most popular sport on the planet, with fans numbering in the billions and millions of amateurs enjoying casual play. Unfortunately, the traditional soccer ball poses some problems—it can be easily punctured or ruptured and needs regular inflation, and the proliferation of discarded balls makes for an environmental mess.

Enter the One World Futbol Project. This initiative was the brainchild of inventor Tim Jahnigen, who was inspired to start the project after watching news footage of kids in Darfur playing a soccer game using a ball made from garbage tied up with twine. What came out of it was this: a virtually indestructible ball that never needs a pump and never goes flat, even if punctured.

One World Futbol sells this unique soccer ball directly to institutions, companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as to individual consumers. For every ball bought by individuals at retail, One World Futbol donates a second ball to a growing network of organizations serving youth in disadvantaged communities around the world.

Chevrolet has entered into a three-year partnership with One World Futbol that will result in the donation of 1.5 million of these balls to youth in refugee camps, disaster areas, war-stricken zones and other impoverished areas.

“Play is essential to our physical and cognitive development,” says Fox. “It’s a crucial part of how young people learn about the physical and social worlds we inhabit and how to navigate them. It’s no surprise that soccer balls are endlessly engaging and stimulating and can keep a group of kids or even a lone kid happily occupied for hours.” So a ball that never goes flat and never needs a pump can mean a child whose family cannot afford a continuous supply of new toys will have a lifetime of engagement.

Fox also reminds us that balls are by definition social objects. “They bring us together in games that require a unique combination of cooperation and conflict,” he says. “The games we play with balls teach important skills to kids—how to share, play fair and by the rules, work as a team, win with humility, lose with dignity.”

So to the kids across the globe, we say: “Play ball!” And to the rest of us armchair athletes, just keep aiming for that wastepaper basket.

 

Join the movement. Consider buying a One World Futbol through the One World Futbol Project website. Those wishing to make donations only—or purchase balls for their organization—can do so through the same website.

Corbyn Hightower is an essayist and blogger living on the outskirts of Sacramento, California, where she is raising three children and six chickens. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and More magazine.