CHARLIE FIRESTONE: BIDEN NEEDS TO UNIFY THE COUNTRY. SPORTS ANALOGIES CAN HELP.

CHARLIE FIRESTONE: BIDEN NEEDS TO UNIFY THE COUNTRY. SPORTS ANALOGIES CAN HELP.

STL TODAY (NOV. 12, 2020) Joe Biden ran on the promise to unify America, making it a recurring campaign theme. That is an extremely tall order in this very polarized society after a very polarizing election. Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman recently called it a “vain hope, something we’d like to believe but know in our hearts is impossible.”

Well, it does not have to be impossible. Biden and his team will need widespread buy-in from all sides. They can do this, I believe, by employing sports analogies and by favoring the values of sportsmanship over a “win-at-all-cost” mentality.

Sports metaphors are common in our daily lives, in the business world, and even in religion. They work because sporting events unify people. We don’t care what color someone is if the person is on our team and can help us win. We don’t care what people’s political philosophy is if they are cheering the same team we are. And we can all appreciate a great play even if performed by the opponent.

Nelson Mandela recognized this quality when he said, “Sport … has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. … Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” Mandela did just that, supporting as president of South Africa the national rugby team that had for so long symbolized apartheid to the country’s Blacks. In so doing, Mandela created a sense of unity and national pride among whites and Blacks alike.

Democrats and Republicans both have Election Day results to cheer and to be disappointed about. They all need to reassess their appeal to the populace but also their ability to govern together. That said, here are a few thoughts for the Biden team, the courts, politicians on all sides, and for each of us to keep in mind.

We are all on Team USA. Barack Obama in his 2004 address to the Democratic Convention said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” George W. Bush struck a similar theme of unity after 9/11. When we look at ourselves as on the same team, we want the group as a whole to succeed, and for each player to do his or her part to make that happen. Americans need to understand that Joe Biden is the chosen quarterback, and we are all on the same team.

We are a meritocracy. For a team to win, it needs its best players regardless of race, ethnicity, age or gender. America has prided itself on its meritocratic standards, but politics has sometimes blinded leaders to the importance of this approach. Americans understand and accept the notion of meritocracy, but for future race relations, we also have to understand that it’s not fair for some players to enter the game with an imposed disadvantage.

Play by the rules. Chief Justice John Roberts famously claimed in his confirmation hearings that he would be merely calling balls and strikes on the Supreme Court. “Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire,” he said. Many today on both sides of the aisle have accused Supreme Court justices and other judges of being judicial activists. If this country is to unify, the courts need to let the players play, but penalize when they don’t. Judges need to be the referees, not the main players.

We need to respect each other. Probably nothing characterizes the division in this country as much as the lack of respect that Democrats and Republicans have for each other. If players fail to respect their teammates, coaches, referees, opponents or fans, they begin a descent culminating in their own personas losing respect from the other parties. If we are to be respected, we have to show respect to others, and that again takes leadership to set an example. But moving to mutual respect will ultimately take an effort by all Americans to reassess what citizenship means to them personally as well as to the country. It requires a sportsmanship mentality, a Golden Rule approach, where we try to understand and empathize with the other side.

Politics is not a game, but resort to sports metaphors and a sportsmanship mentality can bring us closer to unity in the years to come. It will take all of us to achieve it, but the future of America depends on it.

Charlie Firestone is president of the Rose Bowl Institute, which champions sportsmanship and leverages the power of sports to unite people everywhere.