Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), adopts a boxing pose, circa 1950. Photograph by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), adopts a boxing pose, circa 1950. Photograph by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yesterday, when news broke that Nelson Mandela had died, I was writing about the Jameis Winston case, and what happens when football takes over a college and a town.

It’s easy to be cynical about sports. We invest too much in our teams and athletes, and are invariably disappointed when they let us down, on the field and off. There are unseemly spectacles everywhere -- in the NFL’s insistence that its game is safe, in the NCAA’s exploitation of “student-athletes,” in Major League Baseball’s overzealous crusade to nail steroid users, in FIFA’s willingness to award the greatest tournament in sports to a repressive Middle Eastern regime that treats migrant workers like modern-day slaves. The more cynical we get, the easier it becomes to forget that sports can provide moments that are not only physically awe-inspiring but emotionally moving and culturally transcendent.

Mandela grasped the power of sport. A boxer in his youth, he later reflected on the egalitarian nature of the experience. “In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant,” he wrote in his autobiography. “When you are circling around your opponent, testing his strengths and weaknesses, you do not think about his skin color or social status.”

Mandela didn't believe sports were somehow above all of these issues that have motivated so much human behavior across history. He just recognized that athletic contests, with their simple architecture, had a tendency to drown out noise and concentrate the mind. And he recognized that this was true not only of the athletes participating but also of the fans watching.

That’s why the almost all-white crowd exploded in cheers when Mandela stepped onto the field before the finals of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa wearing a Springbok jersey -- a symbol of the white Afrikaner community. Democracy was new to South Africa, but Mandela was not new to the stadium or to the sport of rugby. He understood that the crowd's tribal allegiance to the Springboks could be leveraged into something larger. When Mandela donned a jersey -- their jersey -- he was wearing his ideals of pluralism and inclusiveness on his sleeve. The crowd recognized the man inside the jersey as their own.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)