The breathtaking span of American history rolls out along the Mall in monuments, museums, statues and memorials. The grand space hosts the workings of our democracy and honors the valor, sacrifice, protest and innovation required to protect it.
Is this also the right place for NAKID kickball's Thursday-afternoon pre-beer games?
Should Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s masterpiece — visited by tourists from around the world — be the stage for the Smell the Glove softball team to display the tolls of cubicle life on the human form?
Yes. Emphatically, unequivocally, yes.
It’s hard to believe there’s any doubt, really. From the ice skating on the Lincoln Reflecting Pool in the 1920s to the yoga and ultimate Frisbee of today, the Mall is a display of American joy and vigor.
But the National Park Service is proposing the biggest Get Off My Lawn of them all, calling for a ban of all sports from the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument.
This is the place where you’ll see pickup games, the family touch-football clash, the unleashed high school tour group that remarkably held it together all day at the Capitol and all those rec teams that fill the Mall with a measure of exuberance unheard of in the 9-to-5 federal work drudge.
The turf, Park Service officials say, gets hammered by the stampede. And that keeps the grounds from looking luxurious and rich.
No, no, no. That reasoning is profoundly wrongheaded. Let me tell you why.
If the Mall displays the achievements and grandeur of the American Dream, nothing embodies that more than watching everyday Americans play among the monuments and white marble.
And it goes beyond the obvious declaration that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of happiness.
Let’s start with the very act of free time and play.
Our Colonial founders did not have kickball leagues.
No, they were too busy freezing, starving, building, burying their dead and fighting with the people who already lived here. There was no softball bracket. No one was making T-shirts for the annual Farmers vs. Blacksmiths tourney. But the desire was already there.
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy,” John Adams wrote. “My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
But did that mean the hallowed halls of Congress would someday host a softball league that includes teams named the Dick-Taters and Scared Hitless?
(AARP’s team in that league is named, hilariously, Get Off Our Lawn.)
It was a triumph of our nation’s industrial revolution and labor movement — and apparently sense of humor — that made way for this.
Just ask the Play Lady, Pat Rumbaugh.
"Over the years I have seen so many sports being played on the national Mall: flag football, soccer, softball, ultimate Frisbee and volleyball just to name a few," said Rumbaugh, who is the co-founder of Let's Play America, an advocacy group based in Takoma Park, Md., that fights for the right to recreation. "Friends of mine met playing volleyball on the Mall and eventually became husband and wife."
Banning play from the American narrative horrifies her, just as it does the more than 750 people who have signed an online petition to quash the proposal. Many left comments, too.
“The National Mall is a beautiful place, made even more beautiful by the community it houses on afternoons and evenings during the warmer months,” Dan Henry wrote. “We appreciate NPS’s hard work to keep the landscaping beautiful on the Mall, but any gorgeous lawn is just an exercise in vanity if no one is allowed to enjoy it.”
Audrey Tornblom wrote that she met most of her D.C. friends “playing pick-up Ultimate Frisbee on the National Mall, which was also listed on Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10 Free Things to Do in the USA.’ ” She still plays with those same friends after work. “I am always filled with a sense of wonder and gratitude for the opportunity to play surrounded by such a majestic and historically-important landscape. Don’t take away our Mall!!”
But let’s consider the space itself. It’s true that there are fields and turf spaces all over the place for sports. So what’s the big deal about banning the NAKID (No, Adult Kickball Isn’t Dumb) people from the Mall?
Didn’t we envision an America that looks like the grand cities of the old world with malls and strolling and manicured gardens? The Tuileries, Hyde Park, Vauxhall and Luxembourg gardens of the new world.
Because often, those places weren’t for everybody.
They were often reserved for the upper classes, who watched boat races and strolled in their finery. Back then, they carved parks out of estates and manors, then charged a fee to keep the rabble out.
Washington tried this once before. In April 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation banning play on the grounds of the Capitol, to protect "the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury."
We know what happened there. One of the banned activities that was popular with kids at the time, egg rolling, moved two years later to the White House lawn, where an enthusiastic President Rutherford B. Hayes began a tradition.
Something tells me the current White House will not open the South Lawn every evening to the yoga-in-the-park folks or the ultimate-Frisbee crew, let alone the kickball beer league.
The ban on another activity — sledding on Capitol Hill — was struck down by a pint-size protest two years ago.
Our Mall is the nation’s front yard. We’ve already closed streets and erected ugly concrete bollards in the name of security. We can’t give up NAKID kickball in the name of pretty grass.
Go ahead, Park Service, charge a little more than the ridiculous annual fee of $7 to the organized teams that reserve space. Their annual fees, as high as $1,000 a season, can kick in for maintenance as well as after-parties.
Just don’t ask Americans to get off the lawn — our lawn.
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