Bigger than Baseball

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” 

– United States Declaration of Independence, 1776

The year was 2001 and the clock had struck midnight over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. First year head coach Pete Carroll had gathered his USC football team together for one of the most important practices of his coaching career – and it wouldn’t require helmets and pads. Last season USC had failed to win six games for the first time since 1991 and just the second time in the past 17 years. Fans weren’t quite thrilled when Carroll – a two-timed failed head coach at the NFL level – was brought in to resurrect one of college football’s storied programs that was dying a slow death. USC probably wasn’t either.

He was their fourth choice for the job.

This wasn’t a problem for Carroll. In fact, it was probably something he should have expected at that point in his career. Growing up as an undersized defensive back, Carroll was used to being overlooked – literally and metaphorically – and ended up using this disadvantage to create his greatest asset: An ultra-competitive mindset. If USC was going to lose games in 2001, it wasn’t going to be because they didn’t know how to compete; nobody out-competed Carroll.

To see just how competitive his new football team was, Carroll brought a big rope out to midfield, split everyone into teams, and had them compete against each other in games of tug-a-war. After going through position by position and seeing how the groups stacked up against each other, Carroll brought his team together at midfield and shared a lesson that completely changed the trajectory of USC football. 

Carroll wasn’t gauging how competitive his team was that evening.

In fact, Carroll had no interest in who won any of those tug-a-war matches. In his eyes, everyone had lost. If USC football was going to start mending the wounds that had been ripped open over the past 17 years, they weren’t going to do it with the running backs pulling against the linebackers, the wide receivers pulling against the defensive backs, or the offensive line pulling against the defensive line.

They were going to do it with everyone pulling from the same side of the rope.

His team got the message. Four seasons later USC would go on to win its first national championship since 1978 and solidify itself as one of the premier programs in college football. Carroll got another chance at the NFL in 2010 with Seattle and did not disappoint – leading the team to their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history. Today Carroll is one of the brightest and most influential minds in the game of football and his coaching tree runs deep throughout collegiate and professional ranks. His midnight practice has been recreated on multiple occasions and is a wonderful reminder that our performance as a team will always be at the constraint of our ability to work together as a team. If we’re distracted by the things that drive us apart, we lose sight that we will accomplish so much more together than we’ll ever accomplish divided apart.

We need this more than ever right now.

Abraham Lincoln knew this long ago when he gave his famous “House Divided” speech in 1958 and said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We find ourselves on a similar battlefield today where we have proven unable to unite men and women of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds under the same inalienable freedoms, liberties, and opportunities this country grants us. The very thing those men gave their lives for over 160 years ago is the thing we still haven’t figured out today. We have continued to neglect the prejudice and injustice that has plagued our past and it has ultimately lead to the deaths of innocent men and women that include Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, and now Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. 

In a time where the world has been suffering the past several months from the response to COVID-19, Floyd’s murder  has pushed our country to a boiling point. People aren’t just upset with this broken record of mistreatment, injustice, and inability to prosecute those at fault to the full extent of the law. 

They’re absolutely furious.

 Protestors marching in response to the murder of George Floyd
 A black lives matter protest in Atlanta

To see an expressionless officer take away the life of a black man who was not resisting arrest, putting officers in danger, and was repeatedly asking for help – saying he could not breathe multiple times – has forced us to question the current reality or our country. This is not the first time we’ve seen an officer take advantage of their badge and compromise the safety of an individual who in no way, shape, or form should have lost their life. We have failed to learn from these situations because we have not properly addressed them, examined why they happened, and made changes so they would not happen again.  The powerful response to the death of George Floyd is an indication that we are fed up that people have to keep dying for us to finally wake up and realize we have a problem in this country. It’s not okay anymore to pretend we don’t have one anymore – being oblivious makes you a part of the problem.

Silence, inaction, or being oblivious makes you complicit. That’s the point a lot of people don’t understand. As long as they are not yelling out the “n word” or they’re not the ones stopping somebody on the street… that makes them innocent. That’s not the point.” – Gregg Popovich, head coach San Antonio Spurs

While thousands of people have taken to the streets to peacefully march and show support for Floyd, many of these protests have been matched with violence, force, and rebuttal. Cops have been shown on live television attacking reporters, instigating peaceful gatherings, and spraying rubber bullets into crowds of innocent bystanders. 

They’re throwing gasoline on a raging fire which we had the chance to put out a long time ago – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s grown beyond our control. If we can’t trust the people in charge to protect our constitutional rights, freedoms, and liberties, why should we trust them to act in our best interest?

“The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.” Much of what our society finds so distressing and unacceptable in police interactions with their neighbors — disrespect, anger, frustration and violence — is not a result of “flawed” training; it’s a result of training for war.” – Patrick Skinner, police officer & former CIA Operations officer, from Washington Post

Why should black people feel safe when a cop can pull them over, search their car without a warrant, and justify their actions – even if they found nothing – because they wear a badge on their chest? What about the cops who are known to provoke distress so they can cite resisting arrest? Or what about the ones who hand out bullshit tickets so they can get overtime in court, lie about what they see to get access to private property, or employ zero tolerance on races or ethnicities they don’t like? 

However – this is not the answer, either:

 Rioters and looters damaging a car in response to the murder of George Floyd

Destroying our cities, looting public buildings, and burning cop cars only adds to the problem we have at hand. As painful as this time has been for many, it is not right to also put innocent people and businesses at risk because of the actions of a small group of people from a population that is largely good. Protesting for the sake of raising hell is not productive; it is destructive.

We cannot function as a nation if the men and women enforcing the law are not held accountable to the law, but we also cannot function if our idea of protesting is inflicting pain and destruction on innocent people. Two wrongs does not make a right. In either case, the path we are on is not sustainable. If the point of learning history is to prevent us from repeating the past, we haven’t learned anything from the past. While this has been a boiling point of frustration for some, it’s been a wake up call for many more. The things we once believed about this country are not quite what they seem anymore – especially the things we haven’t read about in our history textbooks.

Now let’s back track and go back to my thought from above: The actions of the four officers responsible for the death of George Floyd do not represent the overwhelming majority of police. They represent the minority. The population of cops who strive to serve our country and protect its people largely outweigh the ones who haven’t upheld this standard. The few who misuse the power of their badge unfortunately ruin it for the majority who treat it with honor, dignity, and respect.

There have been plenty  of cops who have supported the protests and created an environment where people have been able to freely and safely demonstrate their constitutional right to peacefully assemble – even joining in on multiple occasions. These men and women are the majority. 

 Cops showing support for the black communities at peaceful protests
 Police showing support for the death of George Floyd

The amount of good will always outweigh the bad – but the bad we see always seems to ruin it for the good. It’s like the old newspaper saying ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ The majority of media coverage has showed us a lot of the “bleeding” going on in this country and it’s not fair to those who are doing good things and pushing for positive change in their communities. This one-sided broadcasting of information feeds into our natural tendency for confirmation bias. If we only see what we already believed about cops, black people, or protestors, we’re never going to make the effort to see the other side of the problem. If we can’t see the problem for what it is and address it from all sides, we will never be able to get to the bottom of it. 

If we want to get a full scope of the situation, we have to take a step back, get away from the media coverage, and think about this through a humanistic lens. The actions of a few should not justify the opinions of the majority, but this does not mean the actions of the few should be justified. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cop or a civilian – wrong is wrong. We are dealing with human beings; a utilitarianism approach is not good enough. One death is one too many.

If our police departments are filled with guys who are 90 percent good, the 10 percent who are bad are a huge problem. This isn’t a science experiment where a .82 correlation is good enough – we need everyone on board if we want to make this right. If a team is only as strong as its weakest link, our weakest link is ruining it for the rest of the country. 

“I look at our country right now and it feels kind of like a crappily coached team. A lot of talent – not well coached.” – Michael Lewis, author The Blind Side, Moneyball

If only we had the right coaching… 

 

 

In 2011, Tyrann Mathieu – nicknamed the “Honey Badger” – had a dream season for the LSU Tigers. After an impressive freshman campaign, Mathieu separated himself in year two as one of the best defensive backs in the country. He anchored an LSU secondary that helped the Tigers finish undefeated in the regular season and defeated Georgia in the SEC title game. He was nominated as one of the five finalists for the Heisman Trophy award which is awarded to the best player in college football. He entered 2012 with high hopes looking to secure his stock as a first round draft pick and lead the Tigers back to the national championship game. 

Then it all fell apart.

On August 10, 2012, Mathieu was dismissed from the LSU football team for violation of team’s substance abuse policy. The team was less than one month away from the start of the season, ranked No.3 in the nation, and was a heavy favorite to return to the title game. To say it was a devastating blow wouldn’t do the words justice; Mathieu was the heart and soul of the team. While Mathieu remained a student at LSU in hopes he would rejoin the team after some penance, he was arrested in late October on a drug possession charge. Any hopes he had to wear the purple and gold again were completely crushed. His draft stock had plummeted, his chances in the NFL seemed like a long shot, and Mathieu had no one but himself to blame. He had pissed away everything he had worked so hard for his entire life. 

Now let’s fast forward the clock eight years.

This is what Mathieu looked like this past February: Team voted Most Valuable Player of the world champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Tyrann Mathieu, Super Bowl champion

Eight years ago Mathieu was sitting in a jail cell. Today, he is a Super Bowl champion, philanthropist, and plays an active role in the New Orleans community. He’s picked himself up from a dark time in his life, figured out who he didn’t want to be, and got the help from people he needed and when he needed it. 

He didn’t need football back in 2012; he needed a wake up call. 

Former LSU head coach Les Miles didn’t want to kick Mathieu off the team – and it wasn’t because he was concerned with winning a championship in 2012. He had a strong relationship with the defensive back and knew just how much of a role football played in his life. It had helped pull him out of a harmful environment and had given him a chance to make a living and support his family for the rest of his life. 

He also saw the path he was on. 

If he wanted to get off that path and get back on track, Mathieu didn’t need football. He needed someone like Miles to be the father figure he never had. He had spent the last several years of his career carelessly taking care of his body and making decisions that hurt the football team. If someone did not hold him accountable for the decisions he had made, Mathieu would have continued down this path until football was taken away from him for good. 

“Courageous leaders are the ones willing to sacrifice the short term to advance the long term. They would  sacrifice their own personal interests to take care of their people; they would never sacrifice their people to protect their own interests.” – Simon Sanek, author Start with Why, The Infinite Game 

Miles could have easily swept this issue under the rug and let Mathieu stay on the team so he could help the Tigers make a national championship run and solidify himself as a first round draft pick. Instead, Miles showed what true leadership is. When faced with one of the most difficult decisions of his career, Miles stood up for what is right and held his star player accountable to the standards of the team. He had the courage to give Mathieu what he needed and not what he wanted. While Miles calls it the worst thing he’s ever done in his coaching career, I would strongly disagree. 

It was one of the most important things he did as the head football coach at LSU.

He sacrificed the short term success of his team for the long term success of a young man. He knew Mathieu had a future in football, but he also knew he wouldn’t have much of one if he continued on the path that he was on. If Miles didn’t give Mathieu the wake up call he needed, he would not have be where he is today.

He would be in jail.  

The courage Les Miles showed when faced with the most difficult decision of his career didn’t just save Mathieu’s life – it’s going to save this country. 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If our culture is going to be defined by our inability to face the uncomfortable realities of our current situation, avoid confrontation when expectations are not met, and sweep things under the rug when they should be addressed, more innocent people are going to die. We can talk change all we want but the only way we can actually create change is by having the courage to be present and stand up for what is right when it hurts the most. It’s really uncomfortable to admit we still have issues in this country regarding racial injustice, prejudice, and police brutality. As wrong as all of these things are, it is just as irresponsible to continue to turn a blind eye to them. 

If Miles continued to let Mathieu get away with failed drug tests, he would be sending a terrible message to the team: Mathieu can get away with whatever he wants since he’s the best player on the team. When this message is sent, trust is completely broken. There’s no reason to expect the standards of the team will be enforced because they’re only really enforced part of the time. People don’t trust leaders to act in their best interests because the words don’t match the actions. Saying the right things is great and all until you find our your best player just got arrested for a DUI, your assistant coach is in the middle of a domestic abuse case, and your other assistant coach – who’s also your best friend – is filming child pornography. Do you really stand up for what is right or do you just stand up for what’s right when it’s the popular thing to do? Are you willing to take a stand against what’s wrong when it’s necessary or when it’s simply convenient? If we can’t trust our leaders to stand up for what’s right all the time, why should we trust them at all? Why should we feel safe?

When there’s no substance behind our speech and no consistency in our actions, we get what we have today: A lot of broken promises and not a lot of people that trust our leaders to do the right thing when we need them to the most.

“If we don’t have trust, we don’t have anything.” – Augie Garrido, College Baseball Hall of Fame baseball coach

Anything we do from this point forward is going to be meaningless if it is done in the absence of trust. If we want to rebuild the broken trust in this country, we need to understand the power of connection. To do this, we need to go back to the people who connected with us the most: Our greatest teachers.

I encourage you to take some time and think about the greatest teacher you have ever had and reflect on what made them such a powerful influence. You probably didn’t need a lot of time to think about who it was – what they did for us is something we’ll never forget. If we reflect and think about what made that specific man or woman so memorable, there’s a good chance they likely:

  • Had deep knowledge and wisdom in an area of expertise
  • Were masterful in communicating that material
  • Taught you something that you use to this day
  • Demanded more of you than anyone else ever did
  • Believed in you before you believed in yourself

What they taught and how they taught it made them an effective educator – how they made you feel made them a powerful influencer. Great teachers don’t just teach material; they connect so they can take you to places you never would have been able to get to alone. They use their platform in the classroom to to teach life lessons that transcend a transcript. We may forget what they say or what they taught, but we will never forget how much they demanded of us, how much they believed in us, and how good they made us feel when we did something we never thought we could have done. When you can build that kind of a relationship and care level for someone else, your ability to influence has no ceilings. You can demand without sounding demeaning because that person knows why the bar is set so high. You can hold them accountable without turning them off because there’s a shared understanding of what is expected. You can discipline and expect a positive response because there was a level of trust that had been broken. If we know they care, we won’t let them down again.  

This level of connection and care is what is going to rebuild the broken trust in this country.

If we go back to Carroll’s midnight practice, his message was only effective because it created a deep sense of connection within his football team. From that day on, every single player on his team was not just a football player at USC; they were a part of the USC football team. This connection created a level of care in which Carroll was able to set a high standard and hold each individual to the standard every single day. When he demanded a player to do something better, there was a positive response because there was a positive connection rooted in a foundation of trust. That player knew Carroll wasn’t demanding to demean – he was demanding because he knew he hadn’t given his very best. The ultimate form of love is not making others feel good; it’s making others believe they are capable of so much more. 

When our actions do not rise to the level of expectations, we lose the trust of the group. If the behavior does not change, we lose the privilege of being part of the group. This is what happened with Mathieu. As tough as it was for Miles, dismissing Mathieu from LSU was the right thing to do. He had put his own personal desires above the team and his actions had consequences no matter what kind of a player he was. When his behavior did not change, he was the thing that needed to change. He had lost the trust of his coaches, teammates, and the people who he represented as a part of the LSU football team.

If Mathieu wanted to show NFL teams he was serious about leaving these issues behind him, he couldn’t deflect what had happened, make excuses for his actions, and fail to show remorse for the pain he had caused. He had to take ownership. He had to be willing to talk about a dark point in his life and share how he was the only one responsible for the actions that caused him to get kicked off the LSU football team. He had to admit what he did that was wrong, why he allowed his selfish desires to influence these decisions, and how painful it was to break the trust of the people who cared about him the most. He had to come clean if people wanted to believe he had changed for the better – but he also had a penance to pay.

He needed to start by asking for forgiveness.

Trust takes years to build, seconds to destroy, and a lifetime to earn back. Mathieu had destroyed a lot of trust and it was going to take a long time to earn it back. Sharing his regret for the poor decisions he had made wasn’t optional at this point – it was necessary. If we can’t show people we’re willing to put our pride to the side and apologize for what we have done wrong, they’re not going to trust that we have the capacity for change. His sincerity and willingness to change was enough for Arizona to take a chance on him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft – at the cost of some pretty extensive drug testing. 

With a new and improved perception of life, Mathieu took this chance and ran with it because he knew it would be his last if he returned to his old destructive habits. He earned this chance because he showed Arizona he was willing to admit what he had done wrong, take ownership for his actions, show remorse for the pain he had caused, and explain how serious he was to live up to the high expectations of the Cardinals organization. He wouldn’t have been able to get to this point if he didn’t shelf his ego and ask for forgiveness. 

As painful as it may be, we need to do what the Arizona Cardinals did for Mathieu: We need to be able to forgive. We need to understand that people even with the best intentions are going to make mistakes. We have to be willing to put our grudges aside, show empathy, and give people a second chance when they need it. Mathieu’s poor judgement wasn’t a reflection on the kind of person he was – it was a reflection of the environment he grew up in. He didn’t have a father figure, he hung around poor influences, and he learned poor coping mechanisms for when he experienced stress. The large majority of officers, destructive protestors, and politicians who have used poor judgement are most likely good people who mean well and want to help others. They’ve just been brought up in an environment – or still currently operate in one – that makes it really difficult for their best intentions to surface. 

If we want to begin the healing process, we cannot crucify, condemn, and ostracize these people – we need to swallow our pride and forgive them. While this is a lot easier said than done, it is necessary if we want to put the past behind us for good. We cannot and will not create change if we are constantly reminded of the things that drive us apart and make us despise each other. Some will come forth with apologies and ask for forgiveness – plenty of others won’t. This does not mean we only accept the apologies of those who come to the table with them. Jesus Christ didn’t pick and choose who he decided to forgive; he forgave everyone who had done wrong against him because he knew only light could drive out darkness. Fighting hate with hate is a battle we will lose every single time. Holding grudges against law enforcement is not going to create a positive response – it’s going to prevent us from creating one. 

If we’re so concerned with who is right, we’ll never be able to get it right.

While we need to forgive, we cannot forget what happened to George Floyd. We need to remember the pain we felt when we saw an expressionless officer dig his knee into the neck of Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds – three of those in which Floyd was unresponsive – and watch three other officers fail to answer his cries for help. We cannot forget the emotions that sprung us into action because we were tired of broken promises and no longer had the patience to wait for change. Creating long term change in this country is not going to be easy – it is going to be hard. If we don’t feel strongly enough about this cause, we will not see this through to the end. We must use the past not as a place of residence but of a place of reference. If we never forget how the murder of George Floyd made us feel, nothing will stop us until we get him justice and make sure no one else has to die.

“People have to feel the pain to some degree before they act. We’re way way way too comfortable. Unless we get people to be feeling more uncomfortable, it doesn’t change.” – Gregg Popovich, head coach San Antonio Spurs

Getting it right means we need to get this in print. We need to talk about what happened to Floyd in our history classes and make sure our future generations understand how we got to a place that allowed this to happen. Racism still exists and it is not okay. We should have been able to bury this hatchet a long, long time ago – but it doesn’t mean it always has to be like this. Going forward, we must work relentlessly to make sure those growing up do not see color but instead see men and women of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds all united under the same inalienable rights, liberties, and freedoms.

It is going to take a lot of hard work to make this happen. It takes very little to throw it all to waste. 

The ability to forgive uses the power of vulnerability to unite around a common cause by putting our grudges and frustrations aside. The ability to connect creates an unbreakable bond which helps us mobilize towards our common cause despite obstacles, setbacks, and adversity. The connection we share gives us the ability to build trust so we can set high standards, hold everyone accountable to those standards, and discipline those who do not meet them. If we can do these things, we will come out of this as a stronger and more connected country than we’ve ever been. If we cannot, this broken record of injustice will continue until someone else has to lose their life because of our failure to act on this.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity.” – Herb Brooks, head coach 1980 U.S.A. Olympic gold medalist hockey team

For all the pain, grief, and devastation we have felt during these difficult times, we have been presented the opportunity of a lifetime to make an impact that will go long beyond our lifetime. We cannot and will not seize it if we are distracted by the things that draw us apart – we can only do it if we put them aside and start pulling together on the same side of the rope. We need to find something we can all stand for as opposed to finding something to stand against. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, a cop or a civilian, or a Democrat or Republican – we all support what is right. Just because we haven’t gotten it right doesn’t mean it will always be like this, but it’s ultimately on us to make it happen. What we say or do is just as important as what we don’t say or don’t do. 

George Floyd may have only lived to 46, but his legacy will live on much longer if we use this moment in time as an opportunity to understand, inform, unite, and transform. 

The future of our nation depends on it.