Civility Column: What Politicians Can Learn from Athletes

Recently I was watching the end of a college basketball game. All of the players and coaches walked in a line past each other, shaking hands, offering congratulations, hugging each other and chatting. Perhaps politicians could learn some lessons from the way basketball is played.

First, there are rules. When a rule is violated, the player is held accountable by a foul system, and there’s a limit to the number of fouls a player can make before being ejected from the game. Certain violations carry more severe consequences, which also applies to coaches. In the majority of foul situations, no one gets hurt. At the game’s end, the players respectfully congratulate everyone, which honors the hard work put in by both the winners and the losers.

Second, these players and coaches have a lot in common. Basketball is their game. Some grew up in the same school system and played ball together. Others were rivals. Some met at camps or tournaments. Some had siblings or parents who had played or coached before them. These bonds hold them together, and win or lose, the bonds remain.

Third, when coaches are interviewed, they make no derogatory remarks about the opposing team. Instead, they give a compliment, even when one team is superior or a fierce rival. Nor do coaches criticize players who make mistakes. Rather, they mention positive areas of play and those that need improvement.

These three lessons could apply very well to our political world.

There are constant meetings that the opposing parties attend. After each one, they could have a ritual of shaking hands. The more frequently they do this, they more they would get to know each other.

Like the basketball players, these individuals have many things in common. They have pledged to work for the people whom they represent. Many attended the same universities and studied the same disciplines. Many worked their way up from local to federal government. Some are from the same state. This handshake ritual could remind them of their similarities and bolster their desire to work together to complete the tasks they face.

They could also follow the example of coaches. When reporting to the public and press, they could provide information about the progress being made, discuss the areas that still need to be resolved and offer possible solutions without attacking or blaming the other party, which only increases the likelihood that there will be no resolution. Degrading another’s point of view does not help.

Those in the media can help by establishing guidelines for interviews: Interviewees who revert to attacks or blame can be asked to stop and do not have to be invited back for further interviews. Members of the public can ask the same when they are addressed.

In framing the Constitution, our forefathers left us a lesson. When the writing became difficult, they decided to approve what they had, knowing that they could amend it later. That’s what they did, and later came the amendments. Today’s politicians can also change the rules and guidelines to match our modern world. And civility will reign.