Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Rise of the Team

No one would every care enough to pose this as a poll question: "What do you think is the biggest difference between the ancient Olympics and the modern Olympics?"  But if that question ever was posed, I think the most popular answer would be either that it is global or that it is commercialized.  Some might respond that athletes now wear clothes, that women are a bigger part of the games, or that participants no longer glorify Zeus.  And all those are valid answers, but I propose that the most underrated change is that now teams sports are part of the Olympics.  As far as I can research, there were no team sports in ancient competition (not even relays). 

As the NFL commences competition for the 2012 season this weekend, we are again reminded that team sports are now dominant in our culture.  And though the specific sport may change depending on the nation, in most cultures around the world, team sports are much more popular than individual sports.  But in human history this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  I recently read this fascinating article about the most famous American athlete of the 1870s--a competitive walker. Other popular sports of the late 19th and early 20th century were boxing, wrestling, tennis, horse racing, bowling, golf, and baseball.  Baseball of course stands out on the list as the lone team sport, but it's worth noting that of all the team sports, baseball is most like an individual sport (the study of advanced metrics in baseball is so far ahead of other team sports because it has been called "an individual sport disguised as a team sport").  It wasn't until well into the 20th Century that football and basketball began to pass the individual sports in popularity.  And it wasn't until that century that people began to talk about "teams" as groups of human beings rather than oxen.  Although the word "team" has existed for centuries, the word "teamwork" (in the sense that means "a group of people setting aside individual goals for a common cause") was first used in 1909--meaning there are some people alive today who are literally older than teamwork.

Football is the most popular sport in America for a variety of factors, but I don't think it's a coincidence that it is the sport that most subsumes individual players' identities.  Other team sports are also seeing an eroding of individual cache, and somewhat fascinatingly in the NBA, it's the players themselves who are doing it, as they eagerly embrace the "superteam" concept.  To come back full circle to the Olympics, the very concept of a "team" was anted up in 1992 with the "Dream Team," a nickname which has been subsequently doled out to the point of banality.  But I think it's worth mentioning that in the "Trial of the Century" (speaking of banal cliches), it was not a single attorney (Johnnie Cochran's lead role duly noted), but rather a "Dream Team" of lawyers that is credited with inducing O.J. Simpson's acquittal.

Although sports does continue to be the context in which we most often think of "teams", the example above helps demonstrate that "teams" are pervasive in every aspect of our culture.  Certainly, the vocabulary of the workplace is now liberal in describing workers as part of a "team," with the term "team building exercises," yielding over six million Google hits.  The Avengers became one of the top performing movies of all time on the strength of the premise of putting individual superheroes on a team.  And another intriguing new application of the term is the use in pop culture of assigning one's allegiance to a particular individual (e.g. "Team Coco" or "Team Edward").

So what is the significance of our cultural migration toward "team building"?  I don't have time to write the book about that subject, but I did consider it in light of the recent political conventions.   The term "Team Obama" yields over 1.5 million Google hits, while "Team Romney" comes in at about half a million.  But I think those results may be deceiving. First of all, I wouldn't use that as a metric to prognosticate election results given the former's head start in building his team.  But in a larger sense, I question where the fans true allegiances may lie.  Concurrent to the recent rise in the popularity of the "dream team" concept has been the introduction of free agency.  We are increasingly seeing individuals as impermanent and replaceable parts.  And with the knowledge that the members of the team will sooner or later give way, we end up clinging to the external symbols of the team itself--the logo, the uniform, the colors--and our loyalties and allegiances to those symbols may override any other concern.


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