United States can look toward its athletes for examples of unity

They do not always agree. Dwayne Harris can tell you that much, with complete certainty. And they are destined not to agree.

Within the walls of the Giants’ East Rutherford training facility lie a bevy of varying opinions, opinions that Harris sees often. There are 43 African-Americans and 10 white Americans on the roster, some of whom are vocal on all issues and others who avoid comment whenever possible. There are aging, grizzled vets such as Eli Manning and Zak DeOssie, whose locker just so happens to be right next to the locker of brand-conscious millennial Odell Beckham Jr.

It’s a standard NFL locker room, a potentially combustible recipe for squabbles and conflicts as generations and viewpoints and backgrounds collide.

And yet the majority of those disagreements rarely spill onto the field.

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“If me and Odell (Beckham Jr.) disagree on something,” Harris says, “we’re not going to take it on the field and be mad at each other. It might be a case where we might just disagree on something, sure. But when we get on the field, we go out and we’re playing football.

“Once you get here,” adds the former Cowboy, who joined the rival Giants last year, “there’s nothing else but football.”

There is nothing else but football because the Giants are a sports team, a 6-3 team with a shot at the playoffs − and perhaps precisely the kind of team to which President Barack Obama seemed to allude last Wednesday. It was then that Obama, speaking in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, tried once again to unite a polarized nation.

“Ultimately,” he said, “we’re all on the same team.”

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It seemed a cliche analogy. And the more you study the sports team dynamic, the more you realize that a suddenly fragmented United States faces an uphill battle in achieving it. Issues of race, class and gender were inflamed throughout President-elect Trump’s 18-month campaign, and the aftermath of the election has been no better, protests and hate crimes breaking out across the country, social media awash with divisive rhetoric.

This is the new American reality. And with little tangible sign that things will improve in January, when Trump makes the White House his home, this reality seems destined to continue, unless a nation can loosely resemble the team Obama claims it to be.

But the nation is far from a team now, struggling with contrasting opinions, pursuits and ideals. And when running back Rashad Jennings compares the United States to his Giants, he can’t promise the nation will ever truly become a team.

President Barack Obama pleas with the United States to come together, and 'we're all on the same team' after Donald Trump is elected President.

President Barack Obama pleas with the United States to come together, and ‘we’re all on the same team’ after Donald Trump is elected President.

(© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters/REUTERS)

“We’re not a team,” Jennings said of the United States. “Because we’re not on the same team. People want different goals (in the nation). On the Giants, there’s one ultimate goal, so we work in our personal areas to try to better that chance.”

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If the nation is a team, at the moment, it’s a dysfunctional one with much to learn. And the key problem, say the men who make a living working as a team, is that the nation lacks any sort of common goal.

The great irony of professional sports leagues, perhaps, is that they simultaneously give individuals reason to bond together by pitting teams against each other in pursuit of a championship. And it is that championship goal that leads teams to chase unity from the start of training camp to the end of their season, and leads players to look past differences with teammates.

Thus diversity is rarely what tears sports teams apart. Players frequently differ on issues, and locker room conversations reveal those differences, but there’s simply too much at stake to let that seep into the game.

“People have their own views and whatever may be, and we’ll chit chat about stuff,” Harris says. “But if somebody don’t like it, they don’t like it. We ain’t here to debate about stuff. We ain’t here to talk about politics because we’re not politicians. We’re here to play football because that’s what we do.”

Even internal competition can’t rip teams apart with so much on the line. The U.S Olympic women’s gymnastics team featured a superstar (Simone Biles), a faded star (Gabby Douglas), an aging star (Aly Raisman) and an up-and-comer (Laurie Hernandez). All had to operate as a unit, while also competing against each other for individual medals.

They galvanized in the heat of competition in Rio.

“The Olympics are so stressful and so tough, we realized there’s no reason to be competitive with each other,” Hernandez says. “I think that’s why we were so strong for each other. The team competition, that wasn’t even competitive . . . that was us trying to work together.”

At best, players on sports teams view themselves as brothers. At worst, athletes view each other as assets in the title quest. That’s partly why retired offensive lineman Chris Snee, a veteran of the Giants’ 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl title runs, got along just fine with the more bombastic personalities in the Big Blue locker room.

Snee, a no-frills leader, was surrounded by brash, chatty presences such as Antrel Rolle, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, and he won his last Super Bowl when Victor Cruz was emerging as a media icon. None of that ever bothered the quiet Snee.

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Internal competition between the U.S. gymnastics team didn’t affect the chemistry and teamwork they displayed.

(MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

“You didn’t have to be best friends with the guy off the field,” he says. “You had to respect the guy next to you, in the locker room with you. My biggest thing is I didn’t care; you can do whatever you want to off the field. Everybody has opinions. I respect you if you show up on Sundays and give everything you have.”

“There’s a lot of guys I played with that we’re not going to vote for the same people, and there’s things outside of football I weight differently than they do,” adds Justin Tuck, a defensive end on those Giants Super Bowl champs. “That’s the democracy that we live in. Our kids might not be on a play date, and our wives, we might not go to Del Frisco’s and have dinner every Saturday night. But that’s fine. We were able to take those differences and put them aside for the common goal, and that was to win football games.”

But that all works because those teams shared a clear vision, and the nation is struggling with that. Trump’s rhetoric sparked a resurgence in hate speech around the country, and his decision to name Breitbart head Steve Bannon, widely viewed as a white supremacist, as his chief strategist has made minorities feel even further marginalized.

So portions of the nation yearn for Trump’s America, while the rest of the country warily eyes that vision. And only a change in the tone of the President-elect’s rhetoric can fix this.

“The Giants can agree that we are all going to work together to get to that endpoint,” says noted Manhattan-based sports psychologist Will Wiener. “I think there’s a blurriness about the endpoint right now. Working towards Trump’s vision of America and how to make it great is a more complicated question. Some reprocessing of the goals will have to take shape before people really cooperate.”

The problem, says Jennings, is that the coach, who is ultimately held responsible for everything, may not be capable of fixing his own mess.

“At the end of the day, it all falls back down eventually to the coach,” says Jennings. “But it’ll be awhile for that. The things that he’s said kind of damages people, you know?”

***

This is the other great challenge for society, if it hopes to move near Obama’s metaphor: Unlike professional athletes, most citizens are not wired to absorb and ignore the damage of constant barbs.

Sports teams, at least successful ones, are constructed to survive despite both internal and external negativity. Snee remembers how his Giants were 6-6 and riding a four-game losing streak late in the 2011 season. On the outside, fans were calling for the head of his father-in-law, coach Tom Coughlin. In the locker room, safety Antrel Rolle was ripping teammates for not practicing regularly.

But those Giants lost just one more game the rest of the season en route to a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots.

“We believed we were a good team despite the noise around us,” Snee says. “So we continually showed up and worked and had that common vision.”

Such a reservoir of optimism is part of athletic DNA, says Wiener. It’s what LeBron James tapped to push Cleveland past the Golden State Warriors, and what Eli Manning tapped into to twice stun New England in the Super Bowl.

“It’s a psychological tool for an athlete, that I can believe that we can win the championship,” says Wiener. “In some ways, I think the athlete’s mind is more optimistic and more trained in optimism than the rest of us might be.

“Perhaps that’s what Americans will have to engage, that sense of optimism,” he adds. “That sense of positive vision that teams have to put together is, on some collective basis, something that Americans will have to put together.”

There are few guarantees that this can be accomplished nationally, especially since sports teams can’t even always maintain such positivity. In 2013, just two years after winning the Super Bowl, Snee remembers a Giants locker room that had changed, one in which a host of players suddenly obsessed over their social media followings.

Snee, who did not have Twitter and still doesn’t, thought the sudden obsession with followers and fans was removing focus from the pursuit. Before 2013, he’d worked aggressively to keep players focused on wins instead of public perception. By the time he went on injured reserve that October, he had grown fatigued trying to keep his Giants focused.

“It became exhausting, when you continually try to get a guy to buy in, a guy that doesn’t want to buy in,” he says. “As a leader you kind of exhaust yourself because you have to try to get this guy to buy in. It becomes too hard.”

Wiener expects it will be hard for the next four years. Yes, the nation may rediscover teamwork, but the results could still be far more like the Cleveland Browns than the Giants.

“If you take the bigger picture, my feeling is this will not be Armageddon, that the country will agree on common goals and work towards common goals again,” says Wiener. “But I also think this will be an immeasurable bump in the road. Divisiveness will mark this chapter in American history, certainly.”

So much for the playoffs.

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Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News

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