The implications for USA handball if Puerto Rico were to become the 51st state

Side by side, for now, but perhaps one day the star gets moved!?


Two weeks ago we had elections that were so controversial and hotly contested on so many levels, that it was completely overshadowed in the U.S. that Puerto Rico simultaneously had a referendum about it status. The referendum had two parts: in the first one the result was a majority in favor of a change of the current situation under which Puerto Rico is a U.S. ‘territory’ and where the Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship. The second part gave the Puerto Ricans a chance to express opinions about what new relationship they would prefer. Here there was an overwhelming majority in favor of statehood, i.e., Puerto Rico becoming the 51st one among the United States.

However, one should keep in mind that this referendum does not in any way guarantee that statehood is just around the corner. Many Puerto Ricans would see statehood as something that would help the local economy, as it would undoubtedly make them ‘takers’, to use the terminology that came up in the recent U.S. election, meaning that they could expect economic benefits that would exceed their aggregate federal tax burden. But this may be precisely what would make the members of the U.S. Congress hesitate about voting with the two-thirds majority in favor, in this precarious moment for the U.S economy. The initiative would have to come from President Obama, who has generally spoken favorably about statehood, but also for him would it be a big step to take up this initiative right now.

So it may be a bit premature to discuss statehood despite the results of the Puerto Rican referendum. But it may still be fun and thought-provoking what it could mean in an admittedly peripheral area, namely the impact on the state of handball if Puerto Rico were to become fully integrated with the rest of the U.S.! Puerto Rico has participated independently in handball as in all other sports with national teams, and they have their own sports structure and Olympic Committee. In some sports the Puerto Ricans would be ‘dwarfed’ in the case of an integration, but that would not be the case in handball.

While traditionally U.S.A. had the upper hand, this is typically not the case today. Despite its relatively much smaller population, but to some extent due to the advantages of its ‘compact and manageable’ size, Puerto Rican handball has been holding its own in comparison with U.S.A handball in PanAmerican competition. Their federation has been well-organized and has had substantial clout in their Olympic Committee. They have had good coaches (sometimes with Cuban support) and astute administrators. They have good, dedicated handball facilities, and their youth program has been impressive in relation to its size. And they have an IHF referee couple, which is more than USA handball can boast with at this point in time. So quite conceivably, the Puerto Rican handball could become ‘the tail wagging the dog’ as the expression goes.

In other words, it could become a rather interesting debate about how integration would influence the development of handball over the short term and for the longer term! Clearly, there would be a sudden influx of good quality players, although the integration would not necessarily be an easy one. This could lead to a sudden boost in the context of the competitiveness of the national teams at different levels. But what would it mean for the longer term? Would it serve to encourage the growth of handball in the other 50 states or would it perhaps in some way cause handball to become even more of a ‘niche’ sport? And what about development in Puerto Rico when moving from being a country with a proud national team of its own to being a component of USA handball and its national teams? Is it conceivable that some of the excitement around handball in Puerto Rico could diminish rather than being enhanced? (This is of course a broader question that would affect all types of sports).

In the U.S., we have often debated whether it would be more realistic to ‘jump start’ handball development by concentrating mostly on a few geographic areas rather than focusing on nationwide growth all at once. With the addition of a 51st state, it seems that this issue would be given a sudden, practical test. It would also be interesting to see what the reactions would be among our Caribbean and Central American neighbors. They would obviously have reason to speculate about the impact of joint U.S./Puerto Rican resources on the opportunity to be successful in advancing from the region in qualifying events for PanAmerican Championships and beyond.

Given that the statehood question is not likely to have an imminent resolution, I will put on the brakes on my speculation at this point. The scenario may never come about, or it may be something for a distant future when the circumstances may have changed substantially. But apart from intriguing speculation, it just might suggest to us that it would be prudent to do some modest amount of preparatory thinking about the implications, just in case…. And it is also interesting to see that, at this very moment, there is some excitement about the notion of the possible independence of Catalonia from Spain, precisely as it pertains to sports, given the dominant role of FC Barcelona in football, handball and other sports and the large number of individual star athletes from the region!

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Article by Christer Ahl

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