A college friend of mine (he was ROTC, then; active-duty Army for 20 years; and now retired) used to tell me that the season for the U.S. Army football team was one game long. Everything leading up to the annual clash with the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy was nothing but preseason. Navy was the only game that mattered.
In his excellent book, A Civil War, John Feinstein explored a season at the two service academies, moving between West Point and Annapolis and ultimately covering their annual meeting at Veterans’ Stadium, Philadelphia. One of Feinstein’s observations—and one that’s almost a cliche when it comes to talking about the service academy teams—is that they play against one another but ultimately wind up on the same team. But I think there’s a bigger lesson these schools teach us.
The language of sports has a lot in common with the language of war. The media and athletes themselves hype games as epic battles and confrontations, players are lauded as “warriors,” and results are treated with solemnity. But the stakes in sports are low. Ultimately, it’s just a game. While the teams from Army and Navy may play their hearts out on the field, they know that fact better than anyone. Their ultimate duty and the mission they serve is no game.
In sports, as in much of life, we have a tendency to elevate conflict. Lawyers can be very bad about this. Litigation becomes about everything but justice, and personal conflict and pride dictates how cases are handled. An adversarial process necessarily involves conflict, but we owe it to the system we serve not to make it the centerpiece. We could all take a lesson from those men out on the field. The day we risk what they do, we can call it more than a game.