I didn’t realize my name wasn’t really mine until my freshman year of college.
That’s when I used the goodwill earned by my parents to open some doors for myself. It was at that time that I realized what my parents were talking about when they told me to remember who I was. My name belonged to a lot of other people, and I had an obligation to them, as well as to myself, because of that connection.
It was through that lens that I processed BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s ill-fated decision to put values — "Tradition," "Spirit" and "Honor" — on the back of this year’s uniforms instead of last names. He said not a single player favored the decision, so he wisely reversed course several hours later.
I understood why the players would be disappointed.
I also understood, especially as a parent, what Mendenhall was trying to do when he made the move.
But as I watched the situation quickly explode into a catastrophe, I asked myself, "Why does wearing your name on the back of your shirt really matter if the team is really the priority?"
And why was Mendenhall’s attempt to remind everyone that he believes BYU athletes play for more than a win on a scoreboard so offensive?
First, having your name on your shirt should be required of everyone. Maybe if we all wore our family name on our clothing, we wouldn’t be so quick to forget who we are and who we represent.
Whether you come from a strong family with a proud heritage or not, there is something about your name that makes you proud. It’s important to remember, especially when you’re young and impulsive, that you don’t just say something about yourself when you go out in the world. You tell everyone something about your family, and being reminded of that might make for better decisions.
A team is a group of individuals working together for a common goal. One of the greatest lessons that sports teaches is accountability. If you don’t work out, you can’t compete, and that hurts the team. If you don’t learn the plays, you don’t get on the field, and that hurts the team.
Individual accountability is something sorely lacking in today’s society, and sports provide the perfect vehicle to learn how your commitment — or lack thereof — adversely affects other people.
Names matter because accountability is key in any team effort.
Names matter because identity is important, even in a group project.
Names matter because knowing who you are allows you to sacrifice your own needs and desires for the benefit of the team.
Names matter because they connect those outside the team — friends, family and sometimes communities and cultures — with the success and excellence of individuals contributing to the group.
Still, I also understand and sympathize with coach Mendenhall’s effort to remind the players — and everyone who sees and admires them — that they’re not just football players. They, like most athletes, are role models, which as we see all too often, isn’t always a good thing.
Maybe if we all wore the values we hoped to stand for on our shirts, we might not so easily forget them when life gets difficult.
Playing for someone else for something else is inspiring. At the end of the day, it gives purpose to activities that might seem unimportant and unnecessary. The Cougars, like most college football teams, bring great joy to their fans.
And those athletes, many of them teens or very young adults, need to remember that there is great joy in doing something significant for other people. Whether it’s for teammates or for fans, players have the ability to lift up, inspire and bring joy if they take that opportunity. They also have the power to destroy, disappoint and use sports simply for their own advantages.
Anyone who’s tried to teach teenagers that the world doesn’t revolve around them understands why coach Mendenhall attempted what he did. The problem was, in addition to being too heavy-handed, it wouldn’t have accomplished what he wanted. He wants those young men to represent those values, and he wants the world to know it. That only happens, however, when those young men do that everyday with how they live, how they practice, how they play, and who they are off the field.
Slapping a label on something doesn’t make it so. If you want to stand for honor, show us something honorable. If you want to remind us BYU has great tradition, make history. If you want to show us the spirit of the Cougars, support the community that loves you in lots of meaningful ways.
They should be reminded that they play for other people because of what’s on the front of their jerseys.
But for the Cougars to be special, Kyle Van Noy and Taysom Hill have to be confident in and proud of who they are as individuals. When they are, it’s more likely that they’re willing to put their own needs aside, including individual acclaim, to benefit the team.
It isn’t just possible to be individually awesome and collectively impressive, it’s necessary if the goal is to accomplish something truly great.