A Sense of Community - Sharing A Championship
This is the story of a softball team that went above and beyond to make it happen. It's a story of incredibly talented, well guided, and great "citizens" in the game. As a coach, a sports fan, and a philosopher, I find it to be a perfect example of something that is to be commended and embraced by us all - a true sense of community operating in all the right ways.
First, being a member of a sports team is not unlike being a citizen, in the Aristotelian sense of the term. To Aristotle, being a citizen was one of the highest forms of being human. Being a teammate means that you are, obviously, part of a greater whole - the team. Aristotle says: "In the first place, there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other." (Politics, Book I, 1252). We cannot exist as full human beings without the benefit of citizenship, or belonging to some greater community. Likewise, you can't exist as a softball player without being a member of a team.
Being a teammate requires that you must act in accord with the requirements of the appropriate community. Aristotle would say that the requisite here is "homonia" - the Greek word meaning a spirit of like-mindedness. At the heart of it all, being a true community requires more than simply sharing the same space and time. Showing up, in itself, is not enough to be a good teammate, or a good citizen. In a great team, the members have shared purposes and goals, and act in accordance with those goals.
While there are several aspects of "pursuing the common good," and "living the good life" that can be revealed by examining what it means to be a good teammate within the interactions of team members internally, we all know that the real test of any sports team comes from competing (Greek- "to search together") against an opponent. It's tough to play the game just thinking about yourself, as I like to point out to players who become overly concerned with their own statistics, and not concerned enough about the team stats! The true test of team spirit and team function is found in competition with others, and what that brings.
The game, as a contest, ironically forms a higher community constituted by the two (or more in a tournament format) teams forming a phenomenon at least temporarily equivalent to what Aristotle considers the best and highest forum for public virtue, and of course, public action- "the polis." Now, the argument could be made that the real "polis" in athletics is the community of the team; however, I think Aristotle would say that the team itself is too small for that designation, and is more like a family, or "household," to use his own concept.
We can observe that every city (polis) is a community (koinonia) of some kind and every community is formed for the purpose of some good.
The game, the temporary polis of the athletic world, if you will, is also quite conducive for displaying virtues that might be hard to reveal in another arena. One would be hard pressed to think of a more perfect microcosm of life.
Let me give a great example of public virtue and public action that happened at a softball championship last year.
The home team had earned the right to host the championship by virtue of defeating everyone in the conference and thus being the top ranked team. They were heavily favored, as they held a 38 game winning streak against all conference opponents; a streak that had spanned three seasons. That group of softball players, of course, wanted to win the conference, but their sights were definitely set higher than just that championship. The previous year they finished ranked among the top twenty teams in the nation. To them, the conference championship was merely one rung in the ladder that would hopefully end at the National Championship. The conference championship, for them, was like playing for practice. Now, don't get me wrong, I know that every championship level team, and especially this one in particular, takes each and every opponent seriously and never underestimates their opponents. However, an invitation to the NCAA tournament had already been written and was just waiting to be mailed for this softball powerhouse, so they had much more to lose in the conference tournament than they would ever gain. Or, so one would think.
The weather the weekend of the championship was wet and gray. The first round of the tournament was played under cloudy and dismal skies, with an occasional shower rolling through. After some good ballgames, the match up for the championship was set. It would be the home team against the second seeded team in the tournament - the match up, if there was one, that would be the most challenging for the favorites. However, the occasional shower from earlier in the day had turned into a constant rain. Fortunately, there was a tarp available, and with the help of players from other teams at the tournament, it was rolled across the field. It was an old baseball tarp, and since softball fields are much smaller, it covered the entire infield as well as the shallow portions of the outfield - the part where all those blooper singles are hit that drive pitchers crazy. Because it was such a large tarp, maneuvering it was extremely labor intensive, difficult, and quite frankly, hard work. With the help of many people, all players and coaches from various teams, the tarp was brought out that rainy Saturday afternoon. However, it did not prove to be much of a factor that day because the downpour never ceased. The underdogs would have to find some hotel rooms and try to wait out the storm, in order to play for the championship. The game was rescheduled for Sunday at noon.
Early the next morning, the head coach of the home team drove to the field to survey the conditions. The rain had ended, although cloudy skies were still hanging overhead. She arrived to a field that looked extremely wet. The tarp had certainly done its job, as the first thing she noticed were the broad, deep pools of standing water at various locations along its surface. She quickly, and correctly, made a decision that the field was playable, although she knew it was going to take a lot of work to remove the tarp without a disaster, and get the field ready for action. She immediately went over to her office and called players, who themselves called other players, and soon the entire team was at the field ready to work to make the game happen.
They labored, some of them still in their pajamas, for an hour or more trying to remove the tarp in the most sensible way, and then they raked and spread a drying agent throughout the really bad parts of the infield. It could appear to the casual onlooker to be an exercise in frantically organized chaos, but it was in reality an unexpectedly intense and effective exercise of teamwork they had never anticipated. Because of the weather, they had a job to do, and they did it well. This championship game was going to be played! After all the hard work, they quickly went home to eat, change into their uniform, and get prepared to play ball.
During the pre-game warm-ups, which were taking place outside the fences, since the field was still too wet, the head coach grabbed a game ball to take over to the opposing pitcher. On her way past the bleachers, she met a man who was watching the opponent warm up. She greeted him and asked if his daughter played. He said, "Yes." Knowing that, the coach then said, "Well what number is she?" And the man replied, "She's number 10." The coach knew that player, from having played the team previously, and responded by saying that his daughter was a very good ballplayer. The gentleman replied, "Well, thank you for your kind words. I've never seen her play in college. We live in Colorado and I haven't been able to travel out here the way I would have like to, for various reasons. She is a senior now and this is the first chance I'll get to see her play."
The home team went on to win the game on that dreary and gray day; as they should have. But something was learned during that championship that might be hard to reproduce in another setting. Mainly, just the fact that the game was played was inspiring. It is quite obvious that the players, who worked hard to get the game in, would agree with Aristotle on this issue:
"The polis is formed not just for the sake of life (zen), but rather, for the sake of the good life, (eu-zen)."
All the hard work those players put into getting that field ready paid off far more than they realized. That father being able to see his daughter play is the icing on the cake, and a great example of the transcendence of doing good deeds - they always seem to affect more people than we ever realize.
It's important for me to note here that the rulebook for college softball clearly states that the number one seeded team advances if the game is called because of unplayable conditions. Let me re-iterate; that softball team had much more to lose by playing the conference championship than they had to gain. A loss would hurt them far more than the win would help them. They could have easily judged the field unplayable, a right reserved for the host school, and celebrated their championship warm and dry in their respective dorm rooms. I think we all know deep down that wouldn't have been right. But it's easy to say that and it's another thing to act on what we know.
It was clear to everyone present that day that the game would have never taken place if the players had not worked together as long and as hard as they did to protect and prepare the field. Those teammates illustrated beautifully the "agathon koinen" - Greek for "the common good." They wanted to win in the right way.
Anyone who knows Tom Morris' framework of The 7 Cs of Success will recognize right away that this team exhibited the 7 Cs in an incredible fashion. They had a clear conception of what they wanted (C1) - to play and win the conference championship. They were confident in their abilities (C2). They focused their concentration on what it would take to reach their goal (C3). They had worked consistenty toward their goal to get to that point to start with, and continued on with that consistency no matter how much unanticipated hard work it took (C4). As you can tell from this story, their wonderful exhibition of passionate commitment to the importance of what they were doing was exemplary (C5) - they were committed to the importance of playing the game, and of competing to be the best. And they had the moral character to do it the right way (C6). And, as you might imagine at this point, they were people who loved the process together (C6). There were, and are, truly champions.
The players and coaches demonstrated one of the highest virtues of being human that day - sharing ("koinonein"). Aristotle believed that this is at the very root of the human condition. The team shared many things on that day: hard work, determination, the opportunity to compete for a championship, and perhaps, most importantly, but without even knowing, they shared the experience with someone who was incredibly appreciative that he finally got to see his daughter play intercollegiate softball. The especially beautiful thing about that aspect of the situation is that they made this great good possible only by being intent on doing what was right.
One of my former philosophy professors, Dr. Fran Kane, may have said it best: "Those who share well, with excellence, are the truly virtuous." This is community at its best. This is human excellence at its best. As, as Tom Morris would say, this is "true success."
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