GUEST OPINION: Lessons from football

By on July 15, 2015

Local government must make decisions based on entire ‘team’


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – As I lay on the Snow King ball field grass with my wife and kids watching this year’s fantastic Fourth of July fireworks show, I pondered the qualities that make America worth celebrating. Two uniquely American concepts came to mind.

The first is football. Sure, baseball is our national pastime, but football now defines the American sports identity. Like many Americans, I love football. I love it because it’s the ultimate team sport. Football requires every individual player to commit to a common vision, while sacrificing personal gain for the good of the entire team.

In football, the coach’s primary responsibility is to get a group of diverse individuals to work together as a team toward a shared goal. The shared goal is clear – score more points than the other team and win the game. In order to achieve this goal, all eleven players need to be on the same page on every play. If one person misses an assignment, the play breaks down, and things fall apart.

Now imagine you’re the coach, and your star wide receiver walks into your office and requests more balls thrown his way next season because he’s headed into his contract year and this coming off-season will be his one chance to get a big free-agent contract. You consider that he’s a good person; he’s worked hard and played by the rules, and done more than his fair share of blocking to help the running game, which is the core of your offense.

Think about what would happen to your team if you put the needs of this one individual above the greater good – it would divert your attention from your shared goal and things would start falling apart. If you want to know what this looks like, check out what happened to the Seattle Seahawks last season when the coach tried to adapt the offense for star wide receiver, Percy Harvin. (Short-version: it failed and they got back on track when they traded Harvin and returned to doing what they do best – a smashmouth running game.)

All of this sports talk applies directly to the choices our elected representatives make on the issues that shape our future, like updating our land use rules for downtown – also known as the District 2 land development regulations. As the elected coaches of our community, our mayor and town council are charged with achieving our community’s shared goals. These goals include writing land use rules that advance our community’s vision – a community with walkable neighborhoods surrounded by protected open space where at least two-thirds of people who work here can afford to live here.

Just like in football, in order to accomplish this shared goal, we have to put the needs of our team above the individual self-interest of our players. This is especially true in District 2, where many of our community’s star “wide receivers” own property and could individually benefit from potential zoning changes in downtown, like expanding the lodging overlay onto their property. We have a responsibility to keep the best long-term interests of our community in mind and think about whether or not their requests to have more balls thrown their way would help advance our community’s shared goal – or if they would make our community fall apart like the Seahawks’ offense early last season.

The second uniquely American concept I thought about is the principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as eloquently stated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. As citizens in a representative democracy, this means we have a responsibility to actively participate in shaping our shared future, and our elected representatives have a responsibility to make decisions that align with the long-term best interests of the people.

Here’s the thing, as Thomas Jefferson once said: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In other words, those who show up run our town.

That’s why there is nothing more American than constructively engaging in our civic process and speaking up for a better future. And that’s why it was so inspiring to see nearly 50 of our friends and neighbors, organized by my organization, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, take time from their lives and pack town hall a few weeks ago to respectfully tell our town councilors to align our downtown land development regulations with the vision and values of our community with signs like “Housing, not hotels,” and “Middle class not Marriotts.” Then, it was encouraging to see the town council appear to listen and take a few steps in the right direction. This is how our democracy is supposed to work. This is the American way.

At the same time, it was incredibly disappointing that some people tried to discourage these citizens from respectfully participating in our democracy by disparaging them with derogatory labels like “protesters” or calling their active participation a “boycott” (the opposite of participation). It’s simply unacceptable to belittle and discourage people from getting involved in shaping the future of our community. This isn’t how we do things in Jackson Hole.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people includes every person in our community. It is not just a government for those who have existing relationships with decision makers and the time and means to go to every meeting.

As we move forward as a community with the big decisions that shape our future, like updating our land development regulations, we’ll be well served to keep football and “government for the people” in mind. Because if we work together toward our shared goals and make decisions based on our community’s long-term best interests, we’ll end up with a future worth celebrating with fireworks.

About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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