Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The team, the team, the team!

I'm a huge Michigan fan. I attended the university, but I was a Michigan fan from the time I was six years old and first saw the winged helmets winning game after game. Consequently, one of my icons as a kid was Bo Schembechler, the head coach of the football program for 20 years. When I was a kid, I was convinced that Bo was a god. Of course, I also thought that Mr. Spock and Darth Vader were gods, but Bo was the only one whose value system and humanity were, you know, real. And not only real, but on display all the time.

In a way, Bo's statements to the media about the team (the team, the team!) symbolized what became my ideal for humanity in general: you worked together with the people around you to achieve a goal valued by all (well, most...) of you and with a higher purpose in mind. Bo and Bo's teams played for themselves, for each other, but also for Michigan. It was obviously important to him that that ideal, the idea that Michigan represented something higher than money or social status (as would come from, say, an NFL contract), was in the forefront of the players' minds every moment that they were on the field. It meant something to him that they understood that they were the current standard bearers for something that would last long after they were gone, but that could also enshrine them as part of that lasting image that the team and the university had on the fans and the alumni. His focus was service to an ideal. Sounds almost socialist, doesn't it?

We have to be careful about how we focus on that ideal, though. For some, the idea of all-for-one and one-for-all is emblematic of nationalism: Us vs. Them, Oceania vs. Eurasia, the United States vs. Everyone That Doesn't Implicitly Agree, etc. It's possible to see that in Bo's philosophy. The adherence and loyalty was to the team; Michigan's team. But the way he expressed it spoke of something higher: "You will never play for a team again!" Not this team, but any team.

If we dispense with the model of the nation-state and focus on the all-for-one concept as an idea that binds people, then we come to something that not only feels more natural (Is a worker in Ivory Coast really that different from a worker in South Carolina, apart from language and relative pay scale?) but comes perilously close to the communist ideas of the past two centuries, in which the workers across the world would express themselves as one group, rather than splintered into British vs. French vs. Russian vs. German vs. American vs. Anyone Non-white. Is there anyone that could logically argue against a philosophy that presents an ideal of humanity working together for the betterment of all, regardless of racial or national identity or status?

Now, I'm not trying to suggest that Bo was a communist or even a socialist. I met the man and he was what you would probably call a Goldwater Republican; focused on the upstanding citizen approach on the social side and keeping the government out of his wallet on the pragmatic side. But he knew the value both of group effort and instilling the idea in the group that they struggled for something bigger and broader than simply themselves. There was no Randian instinct in Bo (be it Ayn or the newly-elected Senator Paul...) and I think that he would have objected to the perfidy of modern economics and finance in the same way that many sane people do. Riches for a few and crumbs for the rest is no way to build a team or to encourage a team to work for each other.

Now the question becomes: since Bo instilled this ideal into his players at an institution of higher learning, can we trust that the largely uneducated, misguided, and disinterested public would be able to do the same?


  1. Huh. I've always interpreted team loyalty as inherently predicated on the existence of enemy others--not just major rivals like Ohio State, but all others. The idea of the "team" only matters in competition with other teams. So this is a very different way of thinking about it.

    I'm not entirely sure that cooperative goals have to be "instilled." Some of the more interesting recent work in evolutionary psych seems to suggest that people are basically hard-wired to cooperate. There was some experiment involving very young children and videos of shapes where the kids rewarded the shapes that "helped" other shapes reach a goal and punished shapes that acted as impediments.

    On the other hand, there are pretty well-established cross-cultural differences in tendencies to think collectively vs. individually. Although it's hard to pinpoint a single cause that might be manipulated...

    Interesting stuff.

  2. I guess my perspective comes from some of that hallowed Michigan arrogance. I've found the team concept can come not necessarily from beating someone else at the game, but showing that your team is simply better at it. Think of Quiz Bowl or debate teams. Are they really 'beating' the other team or are they simply outperforming them? This was Michigan's role for most of Bo's tenure, especially in conference games. We so overwhelmingly overmatched much of the conference that it was less like beating Indiana than simply showing them we were better at playing football than they were. A consequence of doing so was winning games and the conference title.

    While I recognize some of the evolved traits in behavior (I'm a big fan of Chomsky's theory of 'inherited' language), I think teamwork is a learned or instilled tendency. It's still very easy to be 'the man', even in a team sport, and that can often detract from the team's efforts. Bo's argument was that no one person is more important than the team (or class) as a whole.