Dear America: Stop Treating Politics Like a Sport
There is perhaps nothing that unites people across the globe quite like sports. Thousands of people, filling stadiums, all cheering on a common cause, whether that be simply as a community or as an entire country. In general, sports are a largely positive pillar of modern culture. They not only unite, but they allow those blessed with athletic ability to showcase their talents and bring joy to fans.
Sports bring us together in a way where we are all equal; no matter our nationality, socio-economic status, race, age or creed.
Sometimes it feels like it would be great if the rest of life were as fun, enjoyable and fraternal as sports. But would it really be a good thing for all aspects of life to be like sports?
One thing that has come more and more to resemble sports despite having entirely different aims is politics, particularly American politics.
When I say “politics resemble sports,” I don’t mean in a metaphorical parallels sense like, for example: Are the Oakland A’s, with their goal of succeeding with minimal finances, the Libertarians of sports? Were the 2017/18 Patriots the Hillary Clinton of football? They were crowned by many as champions before the season even began, and actually did make it all the way, though as always shrouded in curious suspicion. In the end, the Eagles won despite seemingly huge setbacks (you could say Carson Wentz’s injury was their Access Hollywood tape). A late blow to the favorite may have turned the tide (Brady having his throwing hand sliced open, James Comey sending a letter to Congress to say he wasn’t quite done investigating emails). The underdog Eagles pulled off a huge upset, giving their obsessed fans equal parts euphoria and swagger. Would things have ended differently if Malcom Butler had played or if Hillary had ever set foot in Wisconsin?
I could go on with this extended metaphor for quite a while, and drawing these kind of comparisons can be a fun and entertaining mental exercise.
However, this is not what I mean when I say sports are like politics, and these fun sort of cliché comparisons can get in the way of the conversation I’m actually interested in having.
We’ve made politics into a sport, and that’s not a good thing.
The Ways In Which Politics Has Become Like Sports
Think of American politics as a sport where there’s basically only two teams who repeatedly play against one another. Sure, technically there are other teams but none of them really matter much. It’s like soccer in Spain with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but much much worse.
Like in sports, in politics we often see intense, irrational dislike of other teams. However, rather than applying this dislike to the ideas that define a team, we instead apply it to the people who support the “other team.” For example, I don’t actually think less of Cubs, Packers or Red Wings fans as people. I realize there are those individuals whose sports passions do lead them to dislike others for their fandom (a level of emotion I’ve never quite understood), but I feel this is far more prevalent in politics. For example, if people disagree on issues such as marriage equality, abortion, or immigration this disagreement too often shapes their opinions of one another. We don’t form opinions of others as quickly if they’re, for instance, from New York based on whether they root for the Giants or Jets.
In both sports and politics, it seems to be a very uniting force for a large group of people to all dislike the same thing, even more than to share a common interest. Everyone may have a different favorite baseball team, but everyone hates the Yankees (sub in Patriots, Blackhawks, and whatever team LeBron is playing on for the other three major American sports).
It’s commonplace to hear people say they hate politics, but the truth is most of us are playing or rooting to some extent. Although, much like sports, there are those who genuinely do not care about political issues and are often confused by the amount of energy and stress people who do care put into it. Like how my sister gives me a hard time for the random bursts of rage and excitement combined with anxiety I express while watching playoff hockey.
Personally, while I am much more a sports nut than a politico, I feel like it’s more important at a fundamental level to care about political issues than sports. Though perhaps much like sports it’s the people who go overboard in their ‘fandom’ that alienate those who don’t care. Making politics more like sports has made people not like politics for some of the same reasons people don’t like sports.
Much like in sports, when it comes to politics, we the ‘fans’ are focusing more and more of our attention on what I would call the ‘off the field’ stuff. So much of the discussion in sports focuses on trades, free agency, drafts, prospects, locker room drama, off the field issues of players and general speculation rather than on the games themselves which are the entire point. In politics, the discussion is less and less focused on the actual work of governing and instead focuses on elections, campaigns, polls, investigations, scandals (although the frequency of such things is certainly relative to the moment in time), and general gossip.
I think both sports and politics would be served much better if we properly valued the work being done that made all of these secondary conversations possible in the first place.
The Problem With Turning Politics Into a Sport
There’s plenty of reasons that it’s a terrible idea to treat politics as if it’s purely a competition between rival factions, but I want to focus on two key ones.
First, in sports, the score/points are what is important. Winning, not how you try to win or the style you play, is ultimately what matters (don’t @ me Arsenal, Liverpool or Tottenham soccer fans). We’ve mistakenly translated this into politics, which has become about winning elections, winning arguments, and making clever jokes on social media hoping for likes and retweets; any way we can “keep score” when really the point of politics should be improving people’s lives and serving the public good (working in the government is called “public service” for a reason). Playing ugly or ‘parking the bus’ just to win isn’t how anything in life outside of sports should work. This problem of keeping score has reached its peak in our current state affairs, where the President of the United States is often only concerned about he and the country “winning” and someone else “losing” rather than having any concern for the method or outcome of these perceived victories. We should stop treating government like a game to be won.
Secondly, we should care more that the ‘team(s)’ we play on represent us rather than only being concerned with beating the other team. In our politics we should be for certain positions rather than just being defined by what we oppose. Pissing off your political opponents is not a governing strategy. “Trigger the liberals/conservatives” does not translate to questions like “How should we deal with a nuclear North Korea?” or “What should our response be to genocide in Syria” or “What is the best course of action for fixing aging American infrastructure?” or “How do we solve the opioid epidemic?” When the only ambition is to win and success is defined by how much your opinions/decisions anger those who disagree with you it is easy to lose sight of important questions and issues. Furthermore, treating every question of government as zero-sum with the requirement that there must be winners and losers sets the bar far too low for what the United States of America should aspire to.
Making Sports More Like Politics Would Be Obviously Absurd
I think a good way to show how negative it is to treat politics like a game where the worst of sports culture is absorbed into political culture is to consider the opposite.
Imagine if we treated individual sports fandoms like political parties or demographic groups, or if rivalries in sports became split along political or racial lines? The idea of Yankees/Mets, Sox/Cubs, Angels/Dodgers, Giants/Jets or Lakers/Clippers being divided in such a way would be clearly ridiculous. Personally, I don’t think this sort of scenario is likely to play out, but if it did I think it’s obvious how negative and toxic that would be.
Even in a place like Chicago, where if you’re a baseball fan and not white there’s a high probability you’re a White Sox fan, this is primarily a product of the city’s geography (there are certainly complex reasons why non-white populations in Chicago tend to live closer to the White Sox but that is a discussion for another day). In general, geography and family history are the strongest predictors of why someone roots for a given team. I hope that’s always true. Sports often feels like the only component of culture where politics doesn’t in some way influence which ‘side’ you’re on. I’m not advocating for a strict “stick to sports” or “stick to politics” policy for anyone heavily invested in one or the other, but instead for us to acknowledge the purpose and value of each of them and to view them in the proper lens.
So what can we do to change things for the better? This question/topic takes me out of my sports commentary lane/comfort zone, so I’ll try to keep it brief.
As I said, the goal of politicians and political discourse should be serving the public good and improving the lives of all citizens, not just the lives of the ones who support your personal positions. I believe this starts with basic respect for other people. You can disagree in the strongest terms with a person’s opinion on a given topic, but that shouldn’t prevent you from respecting their basic dignity as a fellow human being.
The world of sports could learn this lesson too. In recent years we’ve seen plenty of fans injured as a result of opposing fan violence, and in extreme cases people have even been killed. And in the age of social media it’s all too easy to find videos of fights in the stands between drunken mobs of opposing fans.
I’ve heard the point made several times that for humans tribalism is natural, and sports should be a safe way for us to express it. In sports, there are plenty of good lessons and skills to be learned that can improve other areas of our lives: teamwork, that repeated practice yields improvement, that it’s essential to be able to work with people of different backgrounds and skill-sets to achieve a common goal.
In sports, while we may root for opposing teams, sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s just a game.
In politics, we need to realize we are all on the same team and that if we truly want to ‘win’ we need to stop fighting with our teammates and degrading those who ‘play the game’ differently than we do.
Politics is not a sport, and I think it would improve political discourse and help government to better serve the nation if we stopped treating it like one.
And *now* we resume our regularly scheduled sports programming.