Commentary: Polo has No Place for Nazis

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The Nazi regime was responsible for the deaths of 11 million innocents. Photo Courtesy: The History Channel

In a story from earlier this week that at first glance seems patently absurd, video clips jangling around social media show water polo players from Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, California making “Heil Hitler” salutes and chanting a Nazi anthem during a sports banquet. Originally broken by The Daily Beast, additional reporting has identified more examples of this contemptible behavior, including multiple references of the polo players engaging in rituals associated with Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Hate speech and the use of symbols and salutes related to the Nazi era is inexcusable under any conditions—and, in Germany, is punishable by up to three years in prison—but the timing of this story is noteworthy, coming as it does a week after the U.S. men’s and women’s senior national teams represented their country at the 2019 Pan American Games.

The roster of both American teams in Lima, Peru for Pan Ams was drawn primarily from Orange County, the same rich reservoir of polo talent in Southern California where Garden Grove is located. That, and the sport they play so well, are where overlap between Team USA and the Pacifica program end. The American athletes I spoke with in Lima—and I chatted with a number of them—could not have been more respectful, not only of my coverage of their sport, but also of their hosts and their competition, drawn from both North and South America.

Outside of the insult to the Nazis’ victims—and those now menaced by a rising tide of white supremacy in our country and beyond—there is the damage done to the reputations of our national teams and a sport in America that apparently only garners attention when someone commits a heinous crime. The majority of the U.S. population likely has no idea that their national women’s team is on one of the greatest winning streaks in the sport’s history. In addition to winning 59 straight matches, Team USA has won back-to-back Olympic golds, three-straight World Championships, gold in five-consecutive Pan American Games and titles in 12-straight major tournaments.

Eight of the American women and five of the men on the U.S. Pan Am rosters have already represented their country at an Olympics. All 22 will proudly wear the red, white and blue at Tokyo next July. That their sport is besmirched by the contemptible actions of a foolish few is beyond disappointing.

To speak with Maggie Steffens—unquestionably the world’s most accomplished female player—about her efforts to grow the sport she loves in Puerto Rico, the country of her father’s birth, is to be inspired by her candor and sincerity. Or Kiley and Jamie Neushul, sisters who starred on NCAA-winning teams at Stanford and are now fierce competitors for the world’s best team. There’s Ashleigh Johnson, the first-ever player from the East to win Olympic polo gold. Her passion and thoughtful analysis of the game don’t just reflect her upbringing in Miami and education at Princeton, one of the country’s great institutions of higher learning, they’re a reflection of what an admirable representative Johnson is of her country.

On the men’s side, Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s young roster—the average age of the ten players in Lima not named Jesse Smith is 24—are as respectful and courteous as might be imagined. Johnny Hooper, the hyper-kinetic attacker from SoCal who played college ball at Cal, was both forthright and unfailingly polite in responding to questions after a big win at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex. Alex Wolf, the U.S. goalie whose Huntington Beach High School neighbored but doesn’t play Pacifica, is an athlete living an Olympic dream. There’s no way he would be cavalier—or foolish—enough to do anything that might disgrace his country.

Having interviewed collegiate athletes from Harvard to Hopkins, from St. Francis to Stanford to USC, I used to think there was no such thing as a dumb water polo player. Apparently, the boys from Pacifica have proven me wrong, and their stupidity and ignorance—plain to see all over the Internet—is embarrassing to their families and casts a pall over a sport and athletes who deserve far better.

[USA Water Polo CEO Ramsey: “Racism, Bigotry, and Intolerance Have No Place in Sport”]

Now, it’s up to USA Water Polo—the sport’s governing body in the United States—and others, including the administrators at Pacifica High School, and the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), to not only denounce this episode but to also ensure that hate speech of any sort is never allowed to sully the reputation of polo in America.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.