WASHINGTON, June 17, 2013 — Sports are more popular than politics. Americans talk endlessly about sports. It’s considered socially acceptable, even required, to know a few things about the home team, the latest race, the playoffs. People become fanatics about sports figures and sports teams, and it’s considered OK, cool even.
But if people have a political viewpoint, they are urged to keep it to themselves, except in carefully-defined forums. It’s poor form to always be talking partisan politics, or even to discuss political philosophy, which always seems to degenerate into partisan talking points.
What is it about sports that makes them popular? Is it the violence of football, the strategy of baseball, the action of basketball? Is it the thrill of a clean pass at Indianapolis or Daytona? Or is it the possibility of a soccer brawl or a bench-clearing hockey rumble, or a car on its roof, sliding down the main straight? Is it a final winning ace at Wimbledon that draws fans, or a young golfer smacking a ball away from the roots of a big tree and sending it to the fairway, or is it something else?
The actual acts in any sport appeal particularly to that sport’s adherents, but the overall thrill of sports is universal. The appeal of sports, as opposed to politics and governance, is that in sports, there are clear rules that are evenly applied; usually, reviews are instant and public; and outcomes are determined not by secret deals but by actual performance (and sometimes a dose of luck). That this is true is proven by the uproar when someone makes a bad call.
The occasional bad calls in legitimate sports are debated, heatedly, for decades. People are still ticked over the Soviet basketball team’s extra time in the 1972 Olympics, or the botched coin toss ― coin toss, for petesake! ― on Thanksgiving Day 1999, that let the Lions beat the Steelers; or Colorado’s five downs against Missou back in 1990. Buffalo hasn’t gotten over losing the Stanley Cup in 1999; and St Louis fans still hate KC, after the bad call in the 1985 Series’ Game Six. Race fans still ask out loud if Parnelli Jones should have been black-flagged at the Indianapolis 500 for leaking oil, depriving Jimmy Clark’s Lotus the victory ― in 1963.
Justice reigns in sports. In those sports where chicanery is suspected (as is alleged in professional wrestling or sometimes Olympic figure skating ― remember the predictability of the East German and Soviet judges?), results are less-celebrated.
Americans crave justice. This country was founded on justice; and the only place where we can consistently see justice being a high principle is in the sports arena. Academia is tainted by affirmative action, by grade inflation, by teaching to standardized tests, and by teachers’ preferences and endowment politics. The financial arena is polluted by insider information and cronyism, by monopolistic activity, cartels, legal maneuvering, and central banking (and money-pumping). The workplace is dominated by work-politik. In governmental circles, there is absolutely no even-handedness, absolutely no justice; we needn’t even begin to list governmental abuses and instances of favoritism.
So it is to sports where we turn to find fairness and consistency in the exercise of authority. Rules are clear and change in the light of day. The best officials are the ones who consistently and fairly apply the rules. Decisions are made according to the rules ― or the “decider” is sent to the minor leagues for rehabilitation. The bases, the yard lines, the basket height, the baselines, the race track ― these are the same in every game, and are identical for both opponents; no one gets special deals. To the extent that results are perceived to be manipulated, fans walk away. (Note to NASCAR: When someone is pulling away from the pack, it is not the officials’ duty to find a paper cup on the track and bunch the field back up under yellow.)
Sports still represent an arena where someone with a gift and dedication can rise to the top. The high school kid who makes all his free throws and shoots 70 percent from the floor gets noticed, regardless of race, his parents’ donations to the school, or (“even”) his academics. Folklore and history are full of scrappy kids who boxed their way out of lousy neighborhoods.
Politics is different. Here, what matters is the impression a player can get the media to convey to the voter. Lying, fraud, blackmail, corruption, favoritism, money ― these are the basic tools of the game. Merit, principles, and ideas are way down the list. The public knows this, and approval ratings reflect this.
And what about heaven? People can’t stand the idea that good people get cheated in life while bad people succeed. Having the Infallible Referee make the final call is a comforting idea.
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