United We Stand, Divided We Cheer

As I watched the Super Bowl yesterday, I was struck by how much we love our teams, how we really feel that they belong to us.

The football season stretches over more than half a year, pre-season to post-season, and in that time the teams play a crucial part in our wellbeing. They become “we.” And if we’re good enough to go all the way—to the Super Bowl, in this case—we are all champions.

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And then it’s over and we start again.

We live and die with their waxing and waning fortunes, yet we’re not really part of these teams (no matter how many games we attend, how many tattoos adorn our bodies, how many exclusive, collector’s-edition jerseys we purchase, or how grand the personal shrines we build in the corners of our living rooms). The idea of a group of individuals coming together for a common cause is deeply ingrained in America. We celebrate the many individuals working together as one, we romanticize and mythologize the notion that the sum is greater than the parts, that the greatness of the United States of America lies in its union. But how many of us have really been part of a team?

I’ve never belonged to one (aside from a couple of unfortunate months of after-school soccer, for which I’d have been hard-pressed to merit even a Participant trophy). I’ve worked at movie theaters, restaurants, art-supply stores, and taverns. I drove a taxi for twelve years and have most recently tried to piece together a living from painting and writing. At none of these occupations has the concept of collective effort been stressed in the way we express it in our sports. Occasionally in the cab I’d come across groups of corporate types roaming around The Loop. They’d cram into the back seat breathlessly and push a printed-out list of landmarks at me. They’d want me to take them to each place. These were scavenger hunts sponsored by their employers as “team-building” exercises. Out-of-towners would even be flown in to participate in these bonding rituals. Some obviously took part with gritted teeth, muttering sarcastic asides under their breaths, while others dove into the spirit of competition full-bore. It was about winning. Just like on TV.

Sports metaphors abound in our corporate world. Even a want-ad for the lowliest fast-food position will cheerfully urge you to “join our team!” Pulling together to crank out artery-clogging processed meat to the masses can’t help but bring us together, right? Being a good team player is something to which we are supposed to aspire, as opposed to standing apart or going your own way, which may be grounds for dismissal or demotion. It’s a tricky split: we want team players and self-starters, to be sure, but it’s the team players that are more comfortably and routinely embraced. Look at the Republican Party, which is simultaneously in love with Ayn Rand’s heroic ubermenschen and able to martial a united, lockstep group think against those who might question its agenda. We pick and choose between individualism and collectivism as the situation arises.

Yet it’s the team concept that more often connects emotionally. In David O. Russell’s recent film, Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro plays a father who displays his love for his son through fanatic devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s easier and safer for him to profess affection for a squad of 300-plus-pound men in pads and helmets on the big screen than to the all-too-real and flawed young man trying to have a heart-to-heart and, thus, distracting his father from the big game. Focusing attention on one person is fraught with dangers; at least with a team, if you’re disappointed you move on. There’s always next year, or the next sport.

The Monday after the big game can’t help but be a letdown. After the soaring highs and crushing lows we saw played out on the field the humdrum of the office feels like we’re flatlining. We meet up with our co-workers and relive our favorite moments. Maybe, if we’re really lucky the boss will send everyone out on a scavenger hunt, or some other team-building exercise, in which case we’re firing on all cylinders for one more day, full steam ahead.

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