Lessons on being a good teammate, building community, and strengthening democracy
Perspectives from Stanford University Hall of Fame Football QB Andrew Luck
Although 2023 Election Day may be over, I’m still thinking of the powerful messages that Stanford Football alum and Hall of Fame QB Andrew Luck shared with nearly 200 student athletes and coaches on Tuesday’s “All Vote No Play” event at Stanford University about the powerful connections of being a good teammate — in sports and in democracy.
I was so moved by Andrew’s reflective words, character and care — and the positive spirit of the Democracy Day event — I wanted to share a slightly condensed version of his talk here. Although futurists are not really supposed to predict the future, I really do hope that Andrew Luck considers following fellow Stanford football alum U.S. Senator Cory Booker in running for public office one day. (Just sayin’!!).
“I’ve been involved in sports and team sports my whole life, and when I was thinking about this talk, I got the chance to reflect on my own civic and democratic engagement, and the parallels between team sports and community, and being a teammate and democracy.
Setting the stage, I was a freshman in Roble dorm. I graduated from Stanford in 2012 with a degree in Architectural Design. I played football here, and then got drafted by the Colts where I played professionally for seven years before retiring (somewhat controversially) to become a stay-at-home dad, and returned to the Graduate School of Education last year. Recently, I’ve been coaching a few days a week with Pali’s High School football team.
I now see the platform that you have as student athletes through the eyes of my 3.5 year old daughter. To see almost the rapture — the almost worship — she has for student athletes is truly unbelievable. She looks at you playing sports — the women especially — and I see her brain going through the possibilities: ‘maybe I can do that one day…maybe I can play water polo, maybe I run like that, maybe I can shoot hoops like that. That gets me emotional; and it’s powerful. So don’t forget that platform. It’s real — don’t forget what you do for little kids. Especially for kids that look like you, and have a connection with you in some way.
So, what does it mean to be a good teammate? Here are some of my thoughts on teams and teammates (though this is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list):
1. You don’t get to choose your teammates…you’re sort of stuck with them. I love that.
In college you sort of choose — you get to commit to a school and go. If you make a national team, you don’t really choose. Getting drafted professionally, you definitely don’t choose your teammates. But you don’t think twice about working together for a common goal. That didn’t hit me when I played, but it’s certainly hitting me now. You just go. You’re foundational unified with a common purpose, trying to win, and you go.
In a locker room, which is about 100 guys for college and about 60+ for the NFL, your teammates end up coming from a bunch of geographic locations, different socio economic places and truly bring a diverse lived experience into one physical space. It has made me think about how important it is to being local and physical when it’s so easy to run away into your phone and find community and people, but I think that gets slippery. Community online in the broad sense seems like interest groups or confirmation bias when you’re going to hear your own thoughts reflected back to you in a way that’s not challenging you to think deeper in some level about something. (Note: Men’s locker room culture isn’t always positive…we need to continue to work on to continue to make those spaces as inclusive and healthy.)
2. Interdependence is key
I rely on you, and you rely on me. I can’t do my job if you aren’t doing your job. In team sports you internalize that message and you don’t think about it twice. It’s just what you have to do to get the job done.
3. You’ve got to show up
Showing up is a big deal. People see that and notice. Showing up as a singular individual on a team is important. It also means showing up as the best version of me that I can muster that day. This means many different things.
Obviously, it means physically showing up on time and being ready to go. It’s the ultimate form of respect to others.
Showing up on time is half the battle. The other half is how you show up. Taking care of yourself and your wellbeing, including getting the help you need when you need that help. Having agency and ownership over how you are getting that help. Sports allows you a space to tend to that aspect and know that it matters. Role models can help us learn how to show up (props to former teammates and Stanford Women’s Water Polo for always showing up!)
4. Teams are full of unique roles embodying by different people
I learned to embrace my role, whatever it was. As a freshman, it meant being a scout team quarterback. I thought I was a good player. Not good enough to play in college, that was for sure. It meant giving starters the best look possible to prepare for the game. Last week, I was at the Stanford Women’s Basketball opener and someone asked one of the players about her goals for the season, and she said, ‘To be a star in my role.’ I love that. How can we be stars in our roles?
5. Building bridges and connection in teams is foundational
As a quarterback, and “leader” of the team, I took this very seriously. To me, connection all started with affirming others — their roles and the importance of their roles. It basically meant, ‘I see ya, and I hear ya.’
This acknowledgement served the foundation for when we’re on the field. Essentially, “I gotcha. I got your back.” One of the most powerful feelings in the world is when you look around and know that people got you, and you’ve got them.
In thinking about these lessons related to democracy now, showing up and building connections can take different forms and contexts. To me, it means bringing the best version of myself to a conversation that is going to probably be a disagreement to some core issue. I know when I find myself having a knee-jerk reaction to a disagreement, I think about where I am drawing my team boundaries. Am I making that person a foe or enemy, or am I making that person a teammate?
When I reframe the conversation to be one with a teammate, it’s not so hard to find overlapping values and build bridges and find commonality.
For better or worse, you have to build bridges and find connections and find commonalities, and not run away to a phone to confirm something you already know and don’t want to be challenged on.
Even if the purpose is just to be decent and kind neighbors, that’s purpose enough to find together.”
Thank you, Andrew Luck, for modeling what it means to be an incredible leader of civic character and community connection, on and off the field!
And, huge thank you, to all that made the Democracy Day event happen, including The Team’s Engaged Athlete Stanford Men’s Basketball player Josué Gil-Silva, Stanford Men’s Basketball Coach Jesse Pruitt, Stanford Women’s Water Polo Coach John Tanner and his whole team who “shows up” big for Democracy Day each year.
The Team’s efforts, led by Coach Joe Kennedy, Hannah Nusbaum, Elizabeth Ford, and other Engaged Athlete Fellows helped nearly 2000 student athletes from around the country engage in some kind of civic activity this year. Next year, we hope to 100x that number (if not more!). Join our efforts by checking out www.theteam.org.
Scenes from Stanford University All Vote No Play Democracy Day Event