The Ties That Bind

I love football and the Seattle Seahawks.

I love the game of football even though I am not very good at it.  My brief high school career was spent mostly as a bench-warming tackling dummy. In college I was able to take the field as a receiver for a lousy team where my position coach nicknamed me Roberto Duran (Hands of Stone.)  These personal failings did not diminish my love for the sport because of its physicality and strategy.  You must both physically dominate and out-think the other team.

I have loved the Seahawks since their inception when I was a teenager in Alaska.  Every Sunday for 40 years found me glued to the TV to follow their history of long-term futility and more recent glory.  Since moving to Seattle 25 years ago, home Sundays brought me to a stadium with 65,000 other passionate, rabid Seahawks fans.  The “12’s”, as they are known, extend beyond the tens of thousands in the stadium to hundreds of thousands that religiously don blue, grey, white or putrid green jerseys each Sunday to support their team.  As I watch the games, I am often struck by the irony that my BFFs around the city of Seattle during a few hours on a Sunday afternoon have very little to do with me politically.  Seattle is a very blue city in a mostly blue state.  I am neither Republican nor Democrat but I personally find most of the politics in Washington a bit on the loony side.

And yet, it doesn’t matter during those Sunday afternoons. The ties that bind us during those games are the shared suffering of 40 years of mediocrity rewarded by recent success, the shared respect for a team with tenacity, grit, and brotherhood, and by the shared passion for a glorious game with the orgasmic highs and soul-crushing lows that come with it.  So how do these ties differ from our national entanglements?

You might argue that NFL teams don’t tax their fan base as governments do but remind me of that argument when I pay for season tickets. You might tell me that NFL teams don’t enforce mind-numbing, bureaucratic regulations and I will tell you about how much fun it is to go through screening to get into the stadium. I take pride in being a 12 just as I take pride in being an American.  The denigration by Seahawks fans of mouth-breathing 49er fans or room-temperature IQ Cardinal fans is just as xenophobic as the argument for American exceptionalism.   There are, of course, limits to this metaphor since the Seahawks will not draft me to invade Los Angeles, but then I might volunteer if the uniforms were cool.

But why are we able to overlook our cultural, political, and economic differences for the sake of NFL fandom, and yet we as a nation are failing to overlook those same differences for the sake of the far deeper American ties that bind?  Our creeds, our system, and our shared history link us together far more meaningfully than shared laundry.  Debates over those creeds, this system, and that history offer myriad opportunities to disagree, but we cannot lose sight of the unifying power of our shared experience.  If I am willing to share a drink with my seat neighbor in Century Link Field, I should be willing to share a drink with any fellow American despite our social and political differences.  If I can constructively debate with a fellow 12 on the matter of Richard Sherman and his inability to keep his trap shut, I can also constructively confer with an advocate of higher minimum wages on the best way to address income inequality.

Admittedly, a sports metaphor weakens when you think about the broader set of divisive social, economic, and political issues that dominate American conversation and the vitriol, fear, and frustration that too often boil to the surface.  When the final whistle blows, the game is over and fans go back their real lives, as fortune may favor them or not.  Fandom is over for a time while the real world and this society never ends.  The friction of the real world is proving it difficult for Americans to maintain a civil, respectful dialog.  Rather than admit that as a given, I choose to at least attempt civil, respectful dialog until someone proves themselves unworthy.

I am fortunate that I can walk into most any establishment along this road trip and engage in a conversation without having to worry.  Unfortunately I am very capable of putting my foot in my mouth, saying something stupid, and then indeed having something to worry about.  I imagine most people we encounter will treat us with respect until or unless I prove myself a jerk.

There are ties that bind, and there are ties that matter.  Treating fellow Americans with respect is a tie that matters.  So this road trip is about treating fellow Americans with respect while listening to what they say about that evergreen question that impacts us all: “What’s Next?”

EML

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