When Life Imitates Sport

The unique sense of euphoria and disappointment that sport can so easily elicit in us, can also sometimes surface in other arenas, that is, arenas not named after telecommunications companies or office supply chain stores. This week provided two such examples where those feelings trespassed into the arena of US politics, one narrative of disappointment and one euphoric. However, both demonstrated a distinct lack of that keystone of sport around which sporting euphoria and disappointment supposedly revolve: fairness.

In fact, in one of those narratives it was more than just sporting disappointment that made the cross-over, it was the sport itself.

Roger Clemens, one of baseball’s pre-eminant names, dominated congressional proceedings on Wednesday and the news headlines the rest of the week.

Some of us who are less accustomed to the inner workings and hierarchy of major league baseball may have been forgiven for thinking that MLB was just another government agency like the FDA or EPA and that Republicans who decry the Democrats’ penchant for big government might be on to something.

The whole thing furtively planted itself amongst important matters of Congress as if it were normal for Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to act as adjudicator to a baseball star and his former trainer both claiming it was they who was telling the truth and not the other. I guess this is less life imitating sport but rather politics imitating Judge Judy.

Somewhere in the collective consciousness there was a question rattling around and making a nuisance of itself: why was Congress actually devoting time to steroid use in baseball?. Really. Why? Couldn’t this kind of thing have been dealt with elsewhere? If indeed there was a case for perjury couldn’t the courts have dealt with it? Well I guess it isn’t that obvious to me how baseball is sewn so inextricably into the fabric of the nation’s soul that of course Congress would prioritize the issue over the war, the recession, failed immigration reform, healthcare reform etc. Or so the argument would go.

Flippancy aside, those people scratching their heads, including ardent baseball fans, are well within their rights to question Congress and Waxman for pursuing the hearing in the first place and thus wasting tax dollars and public time on an issue so out of step with nation’s concerns.

Asking whether or not it is fair for athletes to achieve their highest potential through performance enhancing drugs is a worthwhile debate but inviting that debate of sporting fairness onto the front pages via the halls of Congress runs roughshod all over the mandate that voters gave Democrats in 2006. It has proven yet again how capable the Democratic led Congress has been in avoiding confrontation on real issues.

Now, while Clemens took the front pages the back page op-eds started to augment a virulent blogosphere argument best represented by the insidious phrase ‘Obama’s cult of personality‘. There were other ancillary labels too like ‘messianic’ or ‘revivalist’, each seeking to portray Obama as a cult leader who deliberately stokes the coals of the religious-like fervor of his supporters to profit off their blind allegiance to his thin veneer of hope.

The aim of this argument is to render the sheer size and enthusiasm of Obama’s crowds as negatives, and it has a particular potency amongst progressive Democrats and independents. It appeals to the same line of thinking I have heard for many years from progressives who lament the news media for treating elections like sporting events. They assert that covering elections as sporting events encourages the electorate to act like sports fans and react as such when their candidate wins or loses and not like the responsible citizens they should be.

Many would argue that the worlds of sport and politics are mutually exclusive and should remain so. They argue that emotion or enthusiastic fervor has no place in a sphere that was designed to be conducted through rational debate.

True, debate should be undertaken rationally; legislative and executive decisions should be approached with critical thinking but that is not to say that emotional reactions to those decisions aren’t valid. Quite the contrary in fact. I would argue that we wouldn’t be human in the truest sense unless we didn’t react to decisions like going to war or cutting social programs with some modicum of emotion. In this sense then, isn’t our emotional reaction to political outcomes more justified than sporting ones?

There is also a glaring omission in the ‘cult of personality’ argument. It is crucial to acknowledge that the ‘race’ to the presidency is one inherently focussed on an individual and as such the derision or celebration of that one person is inescapable. As a matter of fact, for much of the American electorate the presidential election is only about the individual, irrespective of which party they represent. This is the nature of executive office, it is the individual who is running the store and under scrutiny and not the party. It should therefore be expected that supporters of popular candidates will react to their candidate with occasional zeal. A presidential election only allows room enough for a single person to best represent one’s political principles.

If we are to accept these two arguments as givens we should then also accept that if much of the electorate believe the nation to be in dire straits and in urgent need of change their enthusiastic behavior for a presidential candidate, who they feel can deliver them from that situation, is a rational reaction i.e. the degree to which a person emotionally reacts to politics is dependent on the degree of urgency they feel.

The cult of personality is applied much in the same vein as Newt Gingrich’s and Frank Luntz’s renaming of the inheritance tax as the ‘death tax’. It is sophistry at its best, designed to characterize Obama as a smooth-talker with no substance. This simply isn’t true (as I have detailed in earlier blogs), and what’s more, not fair, but when did that ever enter into the lexicon of politics.

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~ by oddlyamerican on February 18, 2008.

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