Rules of the Game

by Paul Hond
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Gulati booted it back: “A proportion of our economic activity — is that your measure of whether we’re a generous donor?” It was more statement than question. Gulati selected more hands, with prods of “Louder!” and “Can’t hear you!” that were like a coach’s kick in the pants. One student criticized the U.S. for attaching conditions to aid. Another felt that politicians needed to justify foreign aid at a time when many Americans were hurting. One young man said, “We’re absolutely not generous, particularly when a large percentage of our activity that is not donations has negative effects on the rest of the world. Capitalism,” he went on, his voice rising, “isn’t a walk in the park.” Gulati let the comment hang there, and the class, much of it in shorts and Columbia sweatshirts, erupted in laughter that betrayed the anxieties of the political moment.

Gulati brought out some facts. The United States was, in dollar terms, “by far, the most generous donor in the world,” but its slice of GDP allocated for international humanitarian assistance — less than .2 percent — was “extraordinarily small” compared to the .7 percent targeted in the early ’90s and achieved by some wealthy European countries. Then, invoking the moral philosopher John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” Gulati posed the following: Not knowing the outcome for yourself or anyone else, would you choose a world in which everyone had a 50/50 chance of being born into extreme wealth (in Scarsdale) or extreme poverty (in Calcutta); or a world in which everyone had a 100 percent chance of being born somewhere in the middle — say, as a lower-middle-class farmer in Argentina? “What rules of the game,” said Gulati, “do you want to have for the world?”

As the students explored the hypotheticals (would a 99 percent estate tax create a disincentive to work?), some wondered how any of this would relate, if at all, to the striking photographs that Gulati had projected on a screen at the outset of the class. Those images, bright with blues, reds, and yellows, showed small children in the streets of what appeared to be a city in Mexico. But now Gulati was talking about a different place.

He was talking about India, where he was born in 1959. His family moved to the U.S. when he was five. During Gulati’s soccer-filled childhood, in Nebraska and then in Connecticut, the family took some trips to India, which Gulati hated, since it meant missing his games. It was only later, while studying economic development at Columbia, that he went to India on his own. He visited relatives in New Delhi, then took a trip to Calcutta — in part, as he told the class, “to be shocked.” He went to Mother Teresa’s hospice and saw the dying and destitute.

The class listened as Gulati, his voice lowered, described scenes of poverty and human suffering in faraway places. Rawls’s veil fluttered in the room, whispering: What if you were born on the streets of Calcutta?

Gulati moved the story ahead a few years. It was 1986, and a journalist friend at NBC called to say that he’d be working at the World Cup, which that year was being held in Mexico. He invited Gulati to join him, promising posh hotels and free tickets to the games. Gulati, soccer nut, was an easy sell. He went to Mexico, and did not forget his camera.

This past February, Gulati was elected to his second term as president of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the national governing body for soccer in the U.S. For more than 20 years, he has been driving the growth of the sport in this country. In the late 1980s he helped put together the bid that resulted in the first U.S.-hosted World Cup, in 1994. That event, with its record-setting attendance, led to the birth of Major League Soccer, an enterprise of which Gulati has been a principal architect.

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