Your Opponent is not Your Enemy: Just Ask Sports

By Charlie Firestone   |   July 29, 2021

As Tokyo gears up for the 2021 version of the 2020 Olympics, and calls proliferate to boycott the 2024 Beijing Olympics, it’s time to evaluate the role of sports in society.

The ancient Olympics were the first instance of sports diplomacy, as the city-states called a truce to allow athletes to travel to the games. Instances abound in more modern days when sports contests have lessened tensions between countries, from ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s to the North and South Koreans marching under the same banner in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

On a more domestic plane, athletes have shown a way for grown adults to handle differences.

When baseball superstar Bryce Harper got hit in the face with a 97-mph fastball earlier this year, thank goodness he was all right physically. But what was even more outstanding was his mental take. The ball was not thrown at him intentionally, obviously, and he shrugged it off as he came out of the game. No charging the mound, no emptying of the benches, no ongoing vendetta. Rather, after the game, Harper texted the clearly distraught pitcher that he understood that the errant pitch was an accident and offered to talk if the pitcher had trouble getting over it.

No doubt there are unwritten rules in baseball and other sports that police situations like getting hit in the head. Yes, the star of the other team was plunked in the next game. All understood, and nothing more happened. The point is that in sports, the players — the good ones — respect their competition, and understand that they are just opponents, not the enemy. As Scarlett said, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Contrast that with the distrust, incivility, and venom that is characterizing some of politics today. Poll after poll has shown that the members of both political parties believe that the other party is incapable of leading the country and, too often, mistake political opposition as the enemy. According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” when compared with other Americans; 47% of Democrats say the same about Republicans, and each thinks the other party as “too extreme.” Majorities of each party do not believe in the same values, or even the same facts.

In his 2012 book Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes suggests that the world of a decade ago, but even more so now, could be divided between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists play by the rules, win some and lose some, but defend current institutions as legitimate even if flawed. Insurrectionists believe the system is broken, so delegitimizing its institutions is commendable. 

The ensuing polarization, according to Eli Finkel and 14 other professors in Science Magazine, is best described as “political secularization,” characterized by “othering, aversion, and moralization.” Political adversaries are not just opponents to be debated and fairly contested, they are the enemy. And not just the enemy, but an inhuman or immoral one that must be defeated at all costs.  

Two Vanderbilt University scholars found in one study that 70% of members of one party considered those of the other party at a lower level of human evolution than their own. And if the opponent is not human, it is only logical that the moral principles that come with humanity will not apply.  

Well, to Bill Maher, Republicans are “treasonous rats,” and to Eric Trump, Democrats are “not even people.” Alex Jones thinks Democrats are “sacks of garbage” while former Sen. Harry Reid called Donald Trump the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster.”

This distrust is rather obviously fueled by cable news and online rhetoric and reaches down well into party membership. America’s present polarization, where the party faithful consider their opponents the enemy, has become a major weakness for the country going forward.

Contrast this state of contention with the ethic of the playing field. The football teams of, say, the University of Alabama and Clemson University could not be more competitive with each other. But there is respect for the players on the other side of the line of scrimmage. When Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams, the level of competition could not be greater, but the deference to the other’s bona fides as an opponent was equally as strong.

That is indeed the nature of athletics: to compete to the fullest, but to come back the next time to compete again. It’s called sportsmanship: an appreciation of the game, fair play, respectful competition, and commitment to the team.

There were times when business or political leaders’ references to sports metaphors were tiresome or even thought to be discriminatory. “Let’s hit a home run on this project,” or “it’s a slam dunk” would be common phrases in a business context. Today, with women composing close to half the athletes in colleges, the fear that such language is sexist is no longer a worry. 

Rather, it’s time to turn to the athletic ethic for examples of competition without making the opponent the enemy. It’s time for America to embrace the sportsmanship mentality over the win-at-all-costs attitude, and for our countrymen to realize that even though we have difference of opinion, we are all on the same team.

Charlie Firestone, a Santa Barbara resident, is president of the Rose Bowl Institute, which champions sportsmanship, leadership, and citizenship and leverages the power of sports to unite.


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