As someone who has spent a good part of his career in the political and sports arenas, I have to say that now is the time to make a clean break. We need to stop debating and discussing politics like we do sports. At the same time, the discussion and coverage of sports have to stop dwelling on the politics of the front office and the locker room.
Starting with the body politic, there is no doubt that we are divided into teams. Frankly, I think there are at least four teams, not just Team Blue and Team Red. These teams are Team Trump, Team Republican Voters Against Trump/Lincoln Project, Team Biden, and Team Progressive. “Succinctly stated, politics in 2020 have ascended to fandom above policy,” Dr. Natalie Brown-Devlin and Dr. Michael Devlin state at the start of their terrific essay. Brown-Devlin is an assistant professor at the University of Texas whose expertise is in advertising and public relations, particularly in sports. Her husband, Michael, is a professor at Texas State, and his research focuses on “the intersection of advertising, sports, and social Identity.”
According to their citations, there is more than a bit of self-investment into whom we support politically. When our candidates win, we tend to ‘Bask-In-Reflected-Glory.’ The wins of our candidates become our wins and validate us as people. If our team or candidate loses, we suffer from ‘Cut Off Reflected Failure.’ In other words, we get tarred with the loss and dragged down.
“Unlike any U.S. President in modern history, President Trump has turned politics into sport, complete with blind and unadulterated fandom,” they write.
They break it down even further, including drawing analogies to the sports world. When a call – say a court case over election law – doesn’t go our way, we blame the referee. When the other team wins, we nit-pick and claim the other team cheated.
Looking at this election, according to a recent Reuters Ipsos poll, 52% of GOP voters think that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Like in sports, they blame the refs (courts and secretaries of state) or the opposing team, as this Daily Show piece illustrates.
These sentiments are only fanned further by mainstream media coverage. During election season, the media tends to frame races strictly through “horse race coverage” – saying one candidate is winning over the other based on public polling and perceptions. Even when an election is not dominating a news cycle, the daily workings of Capitol Hill are often framed as “battles” between parties, especially when it comes to controversial pieces of legislation. In both cases, there are winners and losers.
How many times have we heard “politics ain’t beanbag”? Well, it isn’t. It’s more important. Regardless of their performance on the field, no single political team can end a pandemic, enforce laws or build roads or schools. What sports are supposed to do is give us a break from our worries and anxieties. Going to a game is the original staycation. See the game on the field. Grab a couple of beers and a hot dog. Leave the stadium environment and go back to the real world.
There is also another big difference between politics and sports. Depending on the sport, either the next day like in baseball, a couple of days typical of basketball or hockey, or a week later with football, you play a new game. It is a blank slate, and you can either win or lose, forgetting the previous success or failure. In politics, that next election doesn’t come for another four years for president and either two years for Congress or six years for the Senate.
Of course, in both politics and sports, you can appeal. Frankly, you have a better chance – as long as the election is razor-thin – of winning on a recount in politics than you do with sports matches. In my 12 years of working with the Oakland A’s and Toronto Blue Jays, about a dozen games were “played under protest” because of disputed calls by the umpires. The total of game results that were overturned by the Commissioner’s Office was ZERO. I cannot recall an MLB game result being overturned by protest.
In the time between elections, we still need to figure out some pretty big issues. Too often, we fall short. We haven’t figured out how to make sure all of our citizens get decent medical care. For any number of segments of society, we feel laws and regulations are unevenly enforced. During the Covid-19 pandemic, while we are waiting for a vaccine or some other solution, more than a thousand fellow citizens a day die of the disease as tens of thousands contract it.
What former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said over a half-century ago still fits: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.” While we may not be reading paper versions of newspapers anymore, you get the idea.
But we see the worst of political coverage in sports too. Listening to local or national sports radio, I hear constant second-guessing as to motivation and dissection of relationships between coaches and players and the relationships between teammates. Often this analysis does not look at what happened on the field, what got executed well, and what did not. When a team falls short of the championship, there is a ton of finger-pointing, and personalized blame ignores one simple fact – only one team wins in any given season.
I’ve seen how emotionally invested people get in both sports and politics. In government, hearings that go on and on about local planning issues with the same pros and cons repeated for hours. In sports, the season ticket holders and fan events where m
anagement and ownership were screamed at about signing/not signing a player or trading/not trading for a player. In the case of the former, one can understand issues that could affect their daily lives, a level of emotional investment. For a passion, such as a sports team, one can understand that fans pine for success.
In both cases, rage is misspent energy. In politics, it gets in the way of solving problems. In sports, it shows a complete lack of perspective.
As citizens, we need to not dig our feet in and invest our total self-worth in a member of one of the four teams mentioned above. We need to understand the team we belong to is the United States of America. That team is defined by our founding documents and principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While we all need to understand universal truths, the first step may be slowing our roll and making problem-solving and understanding our fellow citizen’s point of view the primary objective.