Football provides a model for a better way

Jun 5, 2020 | 0 comments

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The killing of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis last month and the subsequent violent riots that have swept the nation since then have provided an opportunity to re-evaluate what led us to this depressing state of affairs and implement changes that will allow us to exhibit love and understanding toward all people moving forward.

In short, the past week or so has provided an example of some of the worst behavior humans are capable of.

If you need an example of what to strive toward, look no further than a football team. They are examples of the best humans are capable of.

An FBS football team features more than 100 players, coaches and staffers of various races, socioeconomic statuses, religions and geographic locations working together toward a common goal. Nobody seems to care what color skin the person lined up next to them has, and any disputes that arise are usually settled peacefully.

“It’s like a brotherhood,” said R.J. Raymond, who played tight end and fullback for the Gators from 2014-18. “Everybody’s close-knit. Everybody’s tight, and, yeah, you have your differences every now and then, you can get into arguments, but that’s the same with everything. You’re so close to each other, both physically and figuratively, but there’s literally nothing else like it in the world.”

Added offensive lineman Shannon Snell (2000-03): “You don’t really see a skin color. You don’t see that kind of stuff. They automatically become your teammate when guys are signing on the dotted line or guys that were already there. Those were the guys. It’s just a group. It’s an automatic brotherhood. We’re all there for a common reason, and I think we all understood that. I think that was the best part about it. No matter what walk of life you came from or what you did, everybody chose to come there.”

Tight end Ben Troupe (2000-03) admitted that he had “zero culture” when he arrived in Gainesville but said his experience at UF helped him understand and appreciate cultures different from his own.

Troupe became friends with wide receiver Carlos Perez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, during his time with the Gators. Perez was the first Dominican-born person he had ever met, Troupe said, and he learned a lot about Latin culture from him.

While he learned about different cultures, Troupe said the biggest shock he experienced when he enrolled at UF was how similar all the players were at heart despite their different physical appearances, backgrounds, and motivations for playing the game.

“The biggest culture shock was the mere fact that most of us come from similar backgrounds regardless of our skin tone,” he said. "A lot of these guys, black, white, Hispanic, we’re all using football as a means to have a better life, and Kirk Wells, a guy that I played with, he was the first football player that ever told me that ‘I’m not trying to go pro. I’m not trying to go to the National Football League. I’m just using my athletic ability as a vehicle to get my way through school.’”

Raymond agreed that the passion each player has for the game binds them together despite their differences. Being a college football player means something for everybody on the roster. For some, it’s a vehicle for them to go to college and perhaps become the first person in their family to earn a degree. For the more talented players, it represents the first step toward making a life-changing amount of money through the sport. For Raymond and countless others who began their careers as walk-ons, merely suiting up for their favorite team is the reward.

“There’s just so many different driving forces behind each and every player that it brings them together,” he said. “When each person has a fuel inside of them, a fire inside of them that is driving towards one goal and then you have another person with a different fire inside of them that is driving them to that same goal, you realize that, ‘Hey, look, we’re all trying to accomplish this, and if we differ, if we are against each other, there’s no way we are going to accomplish this.’”

There are several possible explanations for why team sports seem to be ahead of society as a whole in accepting and respecting others.

First, sports are one of the few true meritocracies in the world. In order to win a championship, a team must work together and become better than the sum of its individual parts. If 10 guys do exactly what they’re supposed to do on a given play, but the left tackle whiffs on his block, the result is usually a negative play. So, it behooves the players to make sure everyone around them does their job correctly and to encourage them, even if they don’t necessarily like a particular person.

If a team can’t put their differences aside and maximize their talents, somebody else will, and they’ll win the championship instead.

“[With any team sport], if you don’t work together, you’re not going to achieve anything,” offensive lineman Jim Tartt (2004-08) said. “There’s no one telling you that this person’s any different than you. You just have to work your hardest, and you’re rewarded for how hard you work together.

“If you did your job and you worked hard, you would get what was coming to you. No matter what color you were, if you did not work hard, you would not be rewarded with anything.”

Football is also unusual in that individual goals are closely tied to team success, as the teams that win more games tend to have more players drafted. It can be argued that being a contributor on a winning program improves a player’s draft stock as much as anything he does at the NFL Combine or Pro Day.

“You come to realize that if you guys are bringing each other down, if you’re arguing, if you’re differing, if you’re butting heads and things aren’t gelling, then you’re not going to get to that common goal, and that common goal will then take away from your plate,” Raymond said.

A second factor is that most college and professional athletes started playing their sport at an extremely young age with children of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and religions. Whereas some people don’t get to experience a diverse population until they leave for college or join the workforce, athletes grow up in an environment of inclusivity. Treating everyone equally is all they’ve ever known.

As an example, Raymond attended Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach. The school has about 2,000 students that range from kids who come from wealthy families that live on the beach to kids from nearby low-income neighborhoods who live off of government assistance, he said. This extreme contrast in the student population taught Raymond to respect and sympathize with others at a young age and prepared him for college.

The time commitment and work ethic needed to play major college sports also contribute to football’s inclusive nature. During the season, players spend just about all of their time with each other through practices, meetings, classes, workouts and team meals. Of course, most (if not all) of them live with each other as well. It’s much easier to hate somebody when using a preconceived notion or stereotype than it is after you’ve gotten to know them.

“It’s kind of interesting because as you come from high school, you come from your bubble where you’re at home all the time, that becomes like your new family because you spend more time around them than you probably will sleeping or any of your other friends that might be back at home or even your own family,” Snell said. “They really do become like your immediate family because you guys are going to be bleeding and sweating and crying together.”

One of the more popular sayings in sports is that “adversity breeds character.” Football players push their bodies to the limits during the offseason in sweltering conditions, and the only people they have to lean on for support are each other. This commonly shared suffering transcends the human-made barriers that might otherwise divide the players and bonds them.

“When it’s practice number-23 in camp and it’s 109 degrees in Gainesville and everybody’s getting up and nobody wants to be there and you’re tired, you’re sore, you’ve got bruises all over and you feel like you’re broken down and you’ve got to get up and do it for a couple more days in a row, that’s when you really start to come together,” Raymond said.

While adversity strengthens an already tight bond on a football team, it often takes major adversity for the general public to start to rally together and put aside differences, offensive lineman Cal Dixon (1988-91) said.

“As a country, unfortunately, it seems the only things that unite us and get us to draw together are immense tragedies,” he said. “It takes wars or it takes 9/11 or something to kind of make the whole country come together and forget about Republican, Democrat, red, blue, black, white, whatever the difference is. Unfortunately, it always seems to take something really bad to happen to draw everybody together, which is an absolute shame.”

The key, then, is to somehow bottle the environment inside a football locker room and release it into the rest of the world.

While football has its own set of problems – cheating scandals, academic impropriety and player safety concerns among them – it provides a template that the rest of the world would be wise to adopt.

“When you get in that locker room, guys come from different racial backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, but everybody kind of respects us, respects each other, respects the work that they do, respects the work that they put in, respects their contribution to the team,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said Wednesday on The Pat McAfee Show. “As we get into society that we can respect other people, I think that is such an important thing. Don’t try to assume something from somebody else. Respect their background; respect who they are. Really try to bring love and care into the community.”

Tags: Sport

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