- Can the values that are learned on the field help unite a divided nation? The future Hall of Fame receiver on what football has taught him about himself and his opponents.
We live in interesting times. Pick a political issue or social topic and you’ll find millions of people with strong opinions on every side. Given the nature of social media and the speed at which we share information around the world, we’ve become a global marketplace of ideas like never before. Sadly, given our tendency to forget the beauty and worth of every human life, we often turn that marketplace into a cage match. A sort of Roman Colosseum where swords and chariots are exchanged for harsh words and relentless attacks on opinions that differ from our own—and at times, attacks on the value of the people who hold them.
This is particularly true in America right now. While we have always been a place where various perspectives have been thrown into the ring to be challenged and debated, our zeal for the fight seems to be at a fever pitch. All the while our respect for the one who stands across from us seems to be at a low point. It’s a sad state of affairs.
What does this have to do with sports? Good question.
From my earliest memories growing up in the beautiful community of Minneapolis as a decent athlete with big dreams, I understood that if I was going to succeed I needed to beat the guy in front of me. Whether it was backyard football, pickup basketball, or sandlot baseball, the goal was to defeat the other team, overcome the other competitor, be the best that day. In the classic words of my friend Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.”
Make no mistake, playing sports is about competition. It is battle. There are winners and there are losers. As the legendary intro to the Wide World of Sports reminded us as kids, there is nothing like the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. While some may not appreciate these realities, the fierceness of competition is a beautiful thing that can teach life lessons and might make you a better person, if you let it.
But the personal growth that sports can cultivate in both individuals and groups of people is a choice. Because that growth is about a deeper understanding of yourself, and perhaps more transforming, a deeper understanding of your opponent and realization of how similar you actually are. We’re both fighting for the same goal, we’re just on different teams. Competition in sports has taught me the value of others, even when I want to defeat them. Adversaries are also brothers. Challengers are also friends. We battle on the field but our aspirations and our hearts are fixed on the same hope.
This fading of differences is even more tangible when you consider what it takes to create a winning team. Individuals from various backgrounds and perspectives who have come together for a common purpose. In my context, ask any NFL team who has won at a high level and you’ll hear them talk about the power of “chemistry.” Togetherness in the midst of difference. Men from different races, seemingly incompatible backgrounds, and wildly variant cultures. Conventional wisdom would say they shouldn’t be able to unite. You would think it impossible to find mutual respect. And yet it’s there. They look beyond their differences. They listen to one another. They consider the experiences and perspectives of the other. They realize they all want the same thing and that they are more alike than different.
But it’s a choice to do these things. It’s a decision to function differently by resisting the urge to focus on differences.
We live in one of the most amazing places on earth. Men and women from diverse backgrounds, different experiences, and unique perspectives all passionately sharing their ideas hoping for a better future. But right now I wonder if we need to take a lesson from the world of sports and focus on what unites us more than on what divides us. More recognition of our inherent worth. More respect for our differences.
Can sports heal America? Not by itself. But the lessons that sports teach us. The change that athletic competition can bring to our character. These things can be a blueprint for a more united America. A roadmap for a nation that can be even better as it harnesses the power of its most valuable resources—all of us.
The stakes are high. Victory is within our reach. Game on.
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