We’ve been here before, America. We’ve arrived at many Thanksgivings of the past divided, confused, anxious, depressed, frightened and disillusioned.
Thanksgiving has been with us since the end of the Revolution, through terrorist attacks, segregation, two world wars, a Great Depression, the Civil War, slavery and the burning of the White House to the ground.
Football has been part of Thanksgiving longer than you think. High schools and Ivy League colleges played Thanksgiving football in the 19th century, when the South was still occupied by Union forces. The NFL has played on Thanksgiving through Prohibition, soup kitchen lines, the McCarthy hearings, civil rights marches, Watergate and more, only pausing for a few years during World War II.
We go through our rituals this year of prayers, turkey and pigskin, hoping to feel better. It isn’t just the bitterly divisive election that has left us feeling fragile. It has been a year of shootings in the streets, shootings in nightclubs, standoffs on reservations, floods, droughts and a growing distrust of our neighbors, a fear of both the powerful and powerless.
But hey, there are three good NFL games on Thanksgiving, so that will make us all feel a little better for a few hours, right?
What a trivial sentiment. This Thanksgiving must be more than a meal and some games. Football has the power to be part of something bigger, something better.
But it will take clearer, bolder voices than mine to point the way.
Our beloved country is free and strong. Our moral and physical defenses against the forces of threatened aggression are mounting daily in magnitude and effectiveness. … We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts.
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving proclamation, November 8, 1941, a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor
Holiday depression is a serious, well-documented problem. The American Psychological Association reported that 52 percent of Americans experienced election stress in October. That stress has not abated in the last two weeks of protests, hate crimes, controversial appointments, angry rhetoric, safety pins and Hamilton.
Regardless of how you voted, you have loved ones who are teetering on the brink of anxiety and depression, friends and family who have become divided. Compassion cannot be a partisan initiative.
“It’s a transition,” says Eric Hipple of After the Impact, a depression treatment facility for veterans and former football players. “When people are not prepared for a transition, it can be traumatic.”
Hipple spent many Thanksgivings in our living rooms as a Lions quarterback in the 1980s. Now, he provides outreach and support services for depression sufferers. He equates the post-election feelings of many Americans with those of an NFL player who suddenly gets released and faces a whole new life away from football.
“Things that keep us out of stress are the things that are predictable, things that we can control,” Hipple says. “When you go through an abrupt change, some of those things can be ripped away. That brings the fear of not knowing what could happen next.”
Hipple’s advice for helping a struggling loved one is simple and universal: “Understand them. Don’t say, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way. It’s happy time!’ Don’t deny their feelings. But then encourage them that they are not alone. Encourage them that things are going to be OK.”
As our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers—for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate.
— John F. Kennedy’s Thanksgiving proclamation, November 5, 1963, 17 days before his assassination
Things are going to be OK. That’s easy for a white, straight, Christian, middle-class man like me to think and say. But you would have to be deaf to ignore the rhetoric in recent weeks that suggests things may not be OK for many segments of our nation.
“I’m hearing that people are getting ready for the rolling back of rights,” says Wade Davis, a former NFL player turned activist who describes himself as an “intersectional feminist.”
Davis is involved with a number of causes, including You Can Play, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of LGBT athletes in youth, prep and local sports. Davis has heard the toxic pronouncements of the so-called “alt-right” and fears that the least privileged members of our society may face battles that won’t just be waged in Congress, but on the high school gridirons like the ones many of us will visit before Thanksgiving dinner.
“From a youth perspective, there is a fear that anyone who is ‘different,’ who does not show up as white, heterosexual and male, could be ostracized and bullied, and there are no protections in place right now,” he says. “What are we doing for the lesbian Latino immigrant who lives in Texas and wants to play football?”
Yet Davis finds hope amid the concern: “It’s a gut check. But it’s also an opportunity for movements that have never thought of themselves as being aligned with each other to figure out how to stand in solidarity with other individuals.”
That solidarity must extend across the political spectrum and every racial-religious-cultural divide to be successful. But how do we share an honest conversation around the dinner table, or in the bleachers during the North Township-South Township rivalry game, when so much of the national conversation is so poisonous?
“We have to start seeing ourselves in each other,” Davis says. “Compassion is a two-way street. How do I have compassion for someone who disagrees with me? How do I show up as a loving presence in your life to at least listen to what your arguments are?”
Davis even finds compassion for a president-elect whose campaign sent shudders through many marginalized communities: “Look at Donald Trump, and realize that he’s living in complete fear. He has no clue what he is about to get himself into.
“I have to figure out, ‘How do I engage this man in conversation so that everything I think he can do to change the world in really awful ways can be seen from a different perspective?’ And then maybe, maybe there’s a chance for some evolution.”
If Davis can empathize with Trump, maybe we can get through Thanksgiving without screaming, accusations and tears: “Donald Trump is not going anywhere. The millions of Americans who voted for him aren’t going anywhere. We’ve gotta engage with these people.”
It is therefore recommended to the people of the United States that at their next weekly assemblages in their accustomed places of public worship…they especially acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Father…to the end that they may speedily result in the restoration of peace, harmony, and unity throughout our borders and hasten the establishment of fraternal relations among all the countries of the earth.
— Abraham Lincoln’s Day of Public Thanksgiving proclamation, April 10, 1862, days after the Battle of Shiloh left 23,000 casualties on American soil.
So this Thanksgiving, we can’t just watch the Lions and eat turkey. We must reach out to those in pain and despair while reaching across the aisle to those with whom we passionately disagree.
All of that reaching sounds like a lot of hard work for a weary nation that needs a day off.
“The ability to heal a divided nation starts with the ability to love. And love is sacrificial,” says Reverend Derwin Gray, former NFL defensive back and pastor of the Transformation Church in South Carolina.
Gray’s football background becomes apparent the moment he advises us to “trust the process” of rebuilding damaged relationships and restoring a national vision all Americans can recognize:
“For me, as a follower of Jesus, that process starts with love. Do I love the person? And am I humble enough to listen to their perspective? Am I willing to change my perspective when I realize I’m wrong?”
Gray’s message easily ports to other faiths, and to the humanist goal of bettering society. We all need to love, listen to and learn from enemies as well as friends.
Gray’s congregation is multiracial and multigenerational. He saw logos for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and others on shirts and hats in his pews before the election. Gray feels that through a diversity of race, class and political alliance we are a source of strength for parishioners who might otherwise be isolated from the perspectives of others. “Proximity creates intimacy,” Gray says. “Distance creates suspicion. Suspicion produces fear. And nothing good comes from fear.”
Gray recognizes the danger of the racism and religious intolerance that spew from what he considers the “fringes” of the political spectrum. But when families, friends, churches and neighborhoods turn against each other over the results of an election, it fuels the fire of hatred that we are trying to snuff out.
“People on the fringes who have evil intentions love the amount of division there is,” Gray says. “The fringe is defeated when the majority chooses to love.”
We give thanks to live in a country where freedom reigns, justice prevails, and hope prospers. We recognize that America is a better place when we answer the universal call to love a neighbor and help those in need.
— George W. Bush’s Thanksgiving proclamation, November 18, 2005, in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina
With so much on our Thanksgiving agendas, it feels like we don’t have time for the NFL or our alma maters. Yet our football players turned activists, counselors and pastors make time for the games. Hipple will be at the Lions game. Gray, who played for the Colts and Panthers but grew up a Cowboys diehard, plans to watch football after his services. Davis and his partner will make time for Steelers-Colts after dinner.
Football is a much-needed diversion. But it’s more than a distraction.
“Sports give us a kind of litmus test,” Davis says. “Every year I played football, since I was seven, there was a new kid on my team: a different race, religion, background, class, whatever. And we had to make it work. It wasn’t always easy. There were fights. There were tears. But because we had one common goal, we were able to find a way to work together.”
Football brings the proximity and intimacy that Pastor Gray preaches. “In a locker room, you see how unity amongst diversity can happen,” he says. “You genuinely begin to love the person you share this common vision with. Then, that begins to spill out into the culture.”
Football can be a metaphor for our beautiful, flawed nation. We question the NFL and NCAA’s direction, their leadership, the power they wield and the messages they send. We fear the harm football is capable of inflicting. Yet it appeals to some of our best nature on an almost spiritual level, transcending race-gender-religion-class-orientation for tens of millions of citizens who have shared the most American of holidays with the most American of sports for well over a century.
“There will be people in bars across America,” Gray says. “They will be celebrating the reemergence of the Cowboys. And one of them will have on a Bernie Sanders shirt, and one of them will have on a Donald Trump shirt. And they will look at each other, and then they’ll hug.”
Hugs won’t eliminate fear and anxiety, obliterate bigotry or heal the nation. But hugs are a step in the right direction.