Trustworthy Opponents

May 5, 2011 //

May 5, 2011

by Pia Infante

I have to admit that I’m a basketball fan, and there is no time like the playoffs to be watching basketball. Actually, it turns out that this season’s playoffs are the most highly watched season in the history of the NBA. From what I can discern – people are watching because there are some well matched teams, there is really no clear and dominant winner (including, you, Lakers), and while there are rules, there is no script. So what unfolds is somewhat unpredictable – and true fans seem to revel in the surprise element.

What does this have to do with dialogue and civic engagement, you may be wondering?

Well, as I was reflecting on the notion of a “good match-up” (when two players who play the same position on opposing teams are evenly matched, it’s fun to watch the kind of game within the game between them) – the concepts of respectful contestation and trustworthy opponents came up unbidden. I actually posted about these notions, put forth by the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy in December of 2009.

In a playoff game, while surely there’s a rash of elbow bumps and brushes that are not called foul – there is a mechanism for holding the line around disrespectful engagement. Players and coaches can be ejected from the game, even the league, for out of line aggression or verbal threats towards other players, coaches, and referees. I appreciate this accountability for good sportsmanship and wish we there was a similar sensibility, say, in the House of Representatives or the Senate – at the state or national level.

What if there were a referee blowing a whistle on bad behavior and language on the Senate floor?

I want to raise up the premise that conflict can be a powerful learning experience if there exists, at the base of it, a deep respect for difference and a willingness to hear into the space between and be changed by it. To me, the NBA demonstrates more respectful contestation than what I often hear reported back from many of our representative democratic bodies, embroiled in partisan politics and back room deals.

I truly believe that trustworthy opponents can sometimes help me learn what I might never learn from a trusted confidant who never questions my premises or leans into the dissonances of my thinking. Similarly, forgive another basketball reference, point guard Rajon Rando of the Celtics matched up against Derrick Rose of the Bulls could bring into being a level of playing that neither could achieve individually. They seem to be a good match-up, and I for one, would love to see them play against each other in the playoffs.

In my estimation, there can be no shortage of narratives that tell the story of how respectful contestation and trustworthy opponents are necessary ingredients in an engaged and vibrant life – individually and collectively.

Do you have a story about a trustworthy opponent who’s helped evolve your consciousness?

The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy is actually seeking out stories for publication. So, if you have a story you’d be open to sharing with the world – send it along and perhaps receive $100 for your effort.

As always, because I consider you, dear readers, to be potential trustworthy opponents in the dialogic space we share – I welcome your considerations, stories, challenges, and questions…


  1. The Whitman Institute on May 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Nice post, Pia. I reflected back on it when I encountered another sports related post, this one courtesy of Eugene Kim.