April 3, 1989. This was the day it began.
This was the day I began my love love affair with the beautiful but often bothersome world of sports. That evening was the final game of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, the first sporting event I ever really watched (won by the University of Michigan in thrilling fashion). It was also, coincidentally, Opening Day of the 1989 Major League Baseball season, the first season I would follow in detail, and the auspicious debut of a 19-year-old named Ken Griffey Jr.
I was hooked.
For the next decade or more sports was the greatest priority in my life, as it is for many in our society. The society with so much wealth and relative peace that most of its citizens can live their lives knowing but little of the world around them: politics, economics, the mysteries of the universe. Most of us can enjoy playing and watching the games played by grown men. Boys and girls too, both players and watchers never really growing up and tackling the problems of the real and hurtful world.
By the end of my high school career and beginning of my college days I had taken an interest in solving such problems. Silly me, I thought it might be fun. I had abandoned my hopes of playing sports professionally or playing sports at all, focusing rather on music, writing, politics, and the banal activities of geeky white guys. By the time I was done with college (I got my masters in 2005) I had moved on from sports, pausing only at certain moments, like so many do, watching Super Bowl commercials in February and in filling out brackets in March. I know that the Republicans retook the House in 2010, but who won the World Series that year? (The San Fransico Giants, for the first time, and the first time the franchise had won since 1954, the year the Republicans lost the House and didn’t win it back for 40 years.) Somehow I found myself caring more about who won in November than in October.
A great number of Americans fancy themselves experts on all matters political. Most people have opinions on Republicans, Democrats, and the issues of the day. Yet only a small number of people would admit to having intimate knowledge of sports and other “unimportant” activities. Today I’m coming out as an unabashed fan of games and sports, and calling out those who purport to work on “real” issues, only to toy with them at the level of children.
The way in which most Americans follow politics–which “team” is going to win this election or rule on this public issue–is distressing to me on several levels. One, that politics is nothing more than a horse race to be won or lost. Two, that those employed in such activities can be thought of as players, indeed “stars” on one team or another. And three, that those following such events would care and pay attention only at the most superficial levels. Given the level of understanding most Americans have of political candidates and issues, we might as well replace our political “stars” with athletes; at least athletes train and develop skills, and “useless” as they might be, they are at least entertaining.
An expert on both sports and politics, Rush Limbaugh, is fond of saying that politics is showbiz for the ugly. One might say un-athletic as well. And the worst part is, they get to do it with our money. Indeed, the greatest reason following sports is better than following politics is that at least sports are chosen freely. Much as those with a casual knowledge of sports and politics lament the big salaries paid to today’s professional athletes, at least they’re paid by the consumers. Do I think Alex Rodriguez and Cliff Lee are overpaid? Yeah, but I don’t pay them. Do I think Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are overpaid? Don’t get me started. And as much as I may dislike Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, their success or failure does not affect my life. They’re playing a game, the outcome of which, in the broader scheme, doesn’t make a bit of difference in my life.
Others have written with greater eloquence than I about why sports matter. They can make us happy, they can bring us together, and they do give us something to root for. I encourage all people who root for electoral outcomes to turn their attention to sports. Life is too short to care about which group of useless politicians gets to call itself majority or minority party. World Series champion has a much nicer ring to it, does it not? Given the choice, would you rather show support for those who work and train and excel in sports, or those who want to control you and use your money? I say we stop giving the latter group the satisfaction.
In recent weeks, professional sports, and specifically football and the NFL, have received some bad press regarding their players’ actions on and off the field. I’ve heard politicians decry the “win at all costs” attitude shown by players and coaches, an attitude that manifests itself in bodily harm and suffering. Politicians shaming win at all costs? If I may summarize the accusation in three words, let them be: pot, kettle, black. There is no more bloodthirsty gang of savages than today’s clique of high-level politicians. They play a game unknown to the most violent NFLer. (This is why I call House of Cards a slight exaggeration of the facts.) And if we are to chastise those who may be role models for our children, let’s start with those whose goal it is to control us and use our money.
In short, I’ve come full circle on my relative appreciation of sports and politics. Remind me never to let that pendulum swing back. This fall I’m going to follow those who actually work for a living, and let the politicians play to empty stadiums. Why can’t those guys ever go on strike?