Rooting Interest

Teams bring us together and set us apart—more than we realize.
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We love teams. They become ours. Their fate becomes ever more crucial to our day-to-day well-being as the season—whatever the sport or activity may be—wears on to its inevitable conclusion. Then if “we” were good enough, it's on to the playoffs, and—if we're really blessed—to winning it all. Of course whether we win it all or not it all begins anew after a break of a month or three. The slate's wiped clean and we reinvest ourselves in the hopes of the ultimate outcome once more.

We live and die along with their waxing and waning fortunes yet we're not part of the team (no matter how many games we attend, how many exclusive, collector's-edition jerseys we purchase, or personal shrines we build to our heroes in the corners of our living rooms). The idea of a group of individuals coming together for a common cause is a deeply-ingrained value in America. We celebrate the many working as one, romanticize and mythify it even, on every sports channel, especially as the ultimate goal—the ring, the cup, the trophy—comes within grasp. But how many of us has ever truly been part of a team ourselves?

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 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 love it to be expressed in our sports. Occasionally in the cab I'd come across groups of corporate types roaming around Chicago's 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 or at least tell them the fastest route to hit each one. 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 “come join our team!” Pulling together to crank out artery-clogging processed dreck to the masses can't help but bring us together, right? Being a good team player's something to aspire to, whereas as standing out or pulling your own way can be grounds for dismissal or demotion. Holding this concept of being a cog in the machine as a positive trait in a country that thinks of itself as a haven of self-made glory is an uneasy juggling act to maintain. We manage somehow though. In politics, for example, the Republican Party is simultaneously in love with Ayn Rand's heroic ubermenschen and able to martial a united, lockstep groupthink against those that might question its agenda. We pick and choose collective and individualist traits and champion them as needed.

We use the team concept to express our deepest inner feelings as well. In David O. Russell's 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+ pound men in pads and helmets on the TV screen than to the all-too-real and flawed young man trying to have a heart-to-heart with him (and thus distract him from the big game). Focusing attention on one person is fraught with dangers; at least with a team if one disappoints you you can always go onto the next guy in line.

Sports, of course, is a great escape. On the day of the big game, we set aside our day-to-day worries and concerns and merge with our fellow fans to scream our team to the victory that we can't or won't attain in any other aspect of our lives. It's a simple goal and we don't even need to do much of the work to attain it. Every NFL Sunday, every March Madness, every playoffs, a large chunk of America's populace will be glued to screens from Bangor, Maine to La Jolla, California to live vicariously for an afternoon with everything on the line. Then, come the next workday, they'll be back at the office, likely lacking that feeling of camaraderie and common purpose they saw on TV.

Unless, perhaps, their manager had sent them on one of those team-building excursions, in which case they'll be firing on all cylinders, full steam ahead.

Illustration by Dmitry Samarov

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