If you find yourself in a Smallville stadium this Friday night, focus on teamwork. It takes teamwork to win. It takes teamwork to grow Christian character. It takes teamwork to improve life materially and spiritually in a community or an area.
We watch our boys do battle on the gridiron with lads from some other place. We respond to cheerleaders’ pleas to encourage our boys. We shout, jump up and down, sing and occasionally get ugly.
We share personal and community news and sage sports observations with one another. We praise good plays and critique the bad.
We talk about great games and players of falls past. Those who can recall and recite these events glowingly are honored and sought-out companions. Also honored are the heroes of past seasons, seated among us in the stands.
For some of us, the game has dimensions of the classic struggle of good versus evil, our team being the good guys, of course.
In each of the past five years, one of the teams representing the five small high schools in our county has won the state football championship for schools of their size. We fully expect the record to continue this year. Currently, four of our teams are ranked in the top 10 in their divisions.
No one talks about it, but it seems to me that football is our primary strategy for community economic development. Currently, we have two men playing in the NFL (and one in baseball’s major leagues). We have six more playing major college football. Millionaires stick out in a poor rural county like ours.
Parents and grandparents take pride in the successes of their offspring. Handling success, as well as defeat and failure, is often a struggle for them as well as the players. Their experiences can teach all of us about giving and receiving unconditional love.
Others of the “seven deadly sins”—envy, greed, gluttony, lust, anger, and even sloth—can attack in the context of our Friday night contests in the stadiums of Smallville, America.
Larry McMurtry provides an insightful commentary on football’s negative impact through characters that populate his novel Texasville. Spoiled by early fame and adulation in a small town, they are unable to adjust to a less vaunted position in a larger landscape.
When one moves from ethical analysis on the personal level to that of the community level, the results continue to be mixed. On the one hand, it is good that our small towns can come together around their teams. Some towns that have experienced economic decline and defeat need a victory. “Sure, the factory closed, prices for forest products are down, and so are commodity prices, but we are tough and our boys play good football. They can lick the guys from Mighthavebeenville any given Friday night.”
Further, the stadium is a place where there is no segregation by economic status or race. (Smallville’s football field has no luxury “skyboxes”.) It is a democratic, egalitarian place. Boosters work together and get to know other people in ways that, otherwise, they might not have done. Relationships and bonds are formed that carry over into other community endeavors.
Problems arise, however, when the gridiron’s battles carry over into the relationships between communities in other facets of life. For example, the five towns of our county need desperately to cooperate on efforts to improve the economic condition of all the county’s residents. But they do not. Some of the reasons are rooted in decades of competition on the county’s football fields. The leaders seem “conditioned” to compete. They are afraid that the next town will get a plant or a business, and they will not. They have not learned that because of the interconnectedness of the towns in a region, success in one will benefit them all.
We find it difficult to alternately compete and cooperate. It is more “natural” for us to do only one or the other. Ideally, as a team sport, football should teach both patterns of interaction. And it can. But we must have the wisdom to find and live out both appropriately in our context.
Further, we find it difficult to cooperate with one another unless there is some other person, group or institution that is seen as a threat to us, one against which we must compete, or perhaps engage in conflict.
Jesus’ teachings say much about cooperation. The Golden Rule teaches it, as does the Great Commandment. And the criterion of love is self-sacrifice for another.
While it is exhilarating after a Friday night victory to shout, “We are number one”, it is far more important to learn the lessons of teamwork and cooperation. In team sports, marching bands, cheerleading squads and life in general, the central lesson should be how to cooperate to achieve a common goal.
So, if you find yourself in a Smallville stadium this Friday night, focus on teamwork. It takes teamwork to win. It takes teamwork to grow Christian character. It takes teamwork to improve life materially and spiritually in a community or an area.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.