On Monday, Ron Rivera attended practice wearing a black shirt with giant lettering across the front: UBUNTU. None of the reporters in the press conference asked him about it, and he didn't say why he was wearing it, but I think I know the answer. The thoughts of some tech people may leap immediately to an open-source operating system, but I don't think that's why coach was wearing this shirt this week.
Ubuntu is a complex word from the Nguni language with several definitions, all of them difficult to translate into English. At the heart of it all, though, is the connectedness that exists or should exist between people. I feel sure that this is why Ron chose that word for the front of his shirt at Monday's practice.
Ubuntu refers to behaving well towards others or acting in ways that benefit the community. Such acts could be as simple as helping a stranger in need, or much more complex ways of relating with others. A person who behaves in these ways has ubuntu. He or she is a full person.
In effect, ubuntu refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all people to one another.
Ron Rivera, who embraces the use of the Washington Football Team name because he loves the stress on "team", constantly talks about concepts like interdependence, synergy and mutual trust. The introduction of a similar and perhaps deeper and more nuanced concept borrowed from African culture seems very much like a Ron Rivera move -- the use of something just a little bit different to reinforce the same message and find a way to keep it from getting stale through repetition.
Coach Ron Rivera has quickly become known in Washington for the same things that defined him in Carolina. The former linebacker who played on the greatest NFL defense of all time (Buddy Ryan's Bears in the 1980s), Ron Rivera absolutely knows and believes in the value of hard work, competition and attitude. But when he talks about greatness, while Washington's head coach never discounts individual effort, he always begins with words like culture, teamwork and trust.
I'm guessing that Rivera may have introduced the concept of Ubuntu to his players by telling them how Archbishop Desmond Tutu described it in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole....
That sounds like a perfect message for training camp, when individual players in competition for roster spots nevertheless try to help one another improve, and where the competition between offense and defense isn't about one unit winning and the other losing, but is, instead, about making the entire team more competitive.
Former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once characterized Ubuntu by saying that it introduces the question, "Are you going to [act] to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"
This, I believe, is what Ron Rivera sees as the foundation of greatness. Rivera sees the character of the man as more fundamental to great success than his skill on the field. That is, a man who has skill, but lacks character will never be truly great.
This message -- that each player on the team must be open and available to others and not feel threatened by others, and that each man should see his value in the success of the group -- may not provide the ideal underpinnings of a capitalist economy, but Ron Rivera is clearly selling the belief that these ideas do underpin team success. I have no doubt that Coach Rivera sees it as central to his job to constantly challenge each player to act in a way that enables the group that surrounds him to improve.
Certainly, character without skill is as useless as skill without character. Thankfully, coach Ron Rivera is clearly committed to building a roster of players that possesses both in great abundance, but he never takes either for granted.
As the guy in charge, Rivera looks to improve both aspects in every player every day -- to practice and improve football skills, but to also teach and develop individual character. It is this balance that seems to increasingly define what Ron Rivera means when he talks about "Washington Football", and I love where that message seems to be taking us.
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