This month a few newspapers and online surveys found that Americans cared more about the Olympics, and sports, than the 2012 presidential election. This type of finding tends to get trotted out on talk shows to illustrate our political apathy, vapidity, and misguided priorities. Commentators bewail our shallow disengagement.
Actually, I think surveys of this kind illustrate the opposite. They prove that we crave a set of quintessentially American moral and ethical values concerning fair and meaningful competition, authenticity, teamwork, respect, meritocracy, anti-nepotism, a fair playing field, and ubiquitously-applied, ironclad rules. Presidential politics have arguably jettisoned these values, but they thrive within the clean lines of the soccer field, the gridiron, and the baseball diamond.
Sports earn our attention and devotion, while this presidential election has not. The political stakes are so high today, and the politics are so very low. The presidential contest is increasingly a self-referential, insular reality TV show for the wonkish and politically inclined. Presidential politics are to the real world as the WWF is to real sports.
Meanwhile, sports exhibit competition within the parameters of consistently-applied rules and respect for the competition; they model teamwork and cooperation and graciousness in defeat; the outcome isn't known beforehand and is arrived at fairly.
When a high-functioning or just a functioning team loses, they don’t point fingers, but take responsibility collectively for the loss. True, this does not always happen. But, when it doesn’t, talk shows and fans will condemn strongly in sports the name-calling, finger-pointing, betrayal, backstabbing, and juvenilia that are the stock and trade of this presidential election.
In the 21st century, sports are also admirably and even ruthlessly meritocratic. They have to be. As our politics, economy, and culture increasingly run by the desiccating forces of nepotism, connections, and inherited privilege, sports run by skill, hard training, talent, innate ability, and quality. In the post-segregation age, these criteria apply regardless of race, ethnicity, or class.
Of course, there are “dynastic” sports families such as the Mannings or the Ripkens, but no plum NFL or MLB position is given because of a player’s daddy. Sports franchises can’t afford that sort of nonsense (neither can the media, but nevertheless they routinely act nepotistically and publish the less than stellar ramblings of daughters and sons of writers and editors, because these children are “known” and “in the family”).
An athlete can’t be bought. Nor can a championship (unless a franchise wants to suffer the eternal scorn of history by throwing the game). There’s no Citizens United for the Superbowl.
You can retort by pointing to the unfairly deep pockets of the New York Yankees, in a sport that, unlike football, has no salary cap or shared revenue structure. While it’s absolutely true that they can buy talent galore, they can’t buy the World Series victory. The World Series is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Yankees--yet. They still lose their fair share, and the Yankees’ resources don’t manage to drown out other baseball “voices" in the ways that the most well-funded lobbyists--for any cause--manage to skew politics.
Finally, sports unify cities and towns across differences. Baltimore was without a football team for over a decade. Now that we have one, we all have something passionate that we really care about to discuss with people who don’t live in our tiny sliver of a demographic. Cab drivers talk as peers with Hopkins physicists about the Ravens, and so on. We unify as something bigger than a fractious collection of individuals or niches around our passion for a team.
Sport is one of the few places in America where one encounters and navigates different opinions and passions in a context of respect, even love.
Indeed, fandom may be a last symbolic repository, in this way, of a genuine patriotic feeling—a love for a larger entity, beyond family, clan, or individual, that unifies diverse people under one "flag," and for which they’ll make sacrifices and express their devotion.
If you listen to politicians and political races today, you don’t get the sense that politics is inspiring a true patriotic feeling of unity among American citizens, and across their circumstances and differences, to put it mildly.
Paul Farhi wrote a column recently about political modelers who predict election winners before the actual campaigns begin. This election cycle, the vast majority of us have long ago made up our minds: a large percentage simply won’t vote for a Republican or a Democrat, and that won’t change. The candidates, to say nothing of the surly ads, don’t matter much. A Pew Research Center poll finds that with three months left to go, a vast majority of Americans feel that they already know enough about both candidates, and don’t especially want to hear more (and who can blame us).
Which begs the question, why wage a campaign—particularly one as puerile as this one.
Right now, as a moral stance, it’s understandable and defensible that we should respect sports more than the presidential election.