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Keith Strudler: The Downside Of Solidarity

The logo of the University of Minnesota

There is such a thing in sports as team solidarity. In some ways, it is the single adhesive that keeps disparate individuals together. It’s manifest when teams eat together, lock arms on the sidelines, attend family funerals of teammates, and so on. It’s a list of activities that often extend far beyond the sidelines in the widely accepted belief that teams that act as one will be stronger than those that don’t. Which theoretically means more wins and fewer losses, at least relative to your talent. If you’ve ever seen a team where the athletes look like they can’t wait to leave the arena and get away from each other, you’d probably agree. Jets fans know exactly what I’m talking about.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that last week the University of Minnesota football team stuck together through what was clearly a trying situation. Specifically, the team threatened to boycott its bowl game against Washington State next week. That came in response to 10 players being suspended from the team around an alleged sexual assault in September. The reported details of the encounter are too graphic for this broadcast, but in summary, multiple team members engaged in sexual activity with one female, often as others watched and filmed. The alleged victim has stated that several encounters were not consentual and that alchol was a factor. These are the relatively limited facts that we know, at least as reported by several credible news sources.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office decided not to press charges against the athletes, as, according to them, they lack sufficient admissible evidence to win this case. That said, the University has far different processes and standards. Which means they were able punish the accused, including these 10 suspension and likely four athletes being expelled. That justification comes in an 80 page report that documents the sordid events of this case, where it’s clear that regardless of the County’s legal position, these players violated clear team and university rules in addition to any sense of moral decency. And that’s being very generous.

To be clear, the Minnesota football team was threatening boycott because of what they deemed a lack of due process. That 10 of their teammates were being penalized without their day in court. And, under this threat, university officials gave team leaders a sit down meeting and a more detailed account of their findings, after which the team resinded their threat and will now together play against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Minus the 10 players who can’t.

There’s a lot of finger pointing in the wake of this almost boycott done in the name of team solidarity. Team head coach Tracy Claeys has taken heat for supporting his players despite the seriousness of the offense. The team has been criticized for essentially marginalizing sexual assault, even if they strongly assert that’s not their point. The University is getting blitzed for secrecy about their process, even though much of that is mandated by law. And the County Attorney’s Office gets slammed for what many will term as letting criminals – football player criminals – get off scot-free. That pretty much covers everyone, I suppose. And, knowing only what’s been reported, I can’t verify which claim is the most, or least accurate.

But I will say this. There is enormous power in the construct of team. Companies know that, which is why a bunch of us have at some point been sent off to some ropes course with co-workers so we can assure them we’ll catch them when they fall. Team building and the ensuing singularity of purpose is supposedly the holy grail of efficiency and execution, where “I” dissolves to “we” or some other plural. That may be good for corporate efficiency, but, as any academic would tell you, that gospel should come with an equal dose of skepticism. If you don’t believe me, just ask the people that used to work for Enron. And remember, when it’s time for layoffs and downsizing, your pink slip will only have your name on it, no matter how good you were at helping your office mates survive a make believe plane crash.

Which means the University of Minnesota football players should understand the pros, cons, and boundaries of team solidarity. There is value to selflessness and the cohesive pursuit of large goals. Despite its cliché, that is how big things get done, and is one of the potential lessons of organized team sports in our educational systems. But something else we’re supposed to learn in school, particularly in college, is the importance of independent and critical thought. Which might have saved the team from taking a stand where perhaps they shouldn’t have. And perhaps, just perhaps, it could have prevented this sad event in the first place, where a bunch of athletes seemed all too comfortable in joining in potentially criminal group think.

That’s the downside of solidarity. It can certainly bring teams together. It can also, in this case at least, potentially tear teams apart.  

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