Sports and Politics

5 Dec

There is only one place in the world that I have never discussed politics.

Las Vegas.

Think about it. People from all across the country, and the world, come to Vegas. They are from all walks of life. Rich people who sit at the high-end tables. Not so rich people who scrimp and save for an NC-17 vacation and sit at the lower end tables. College kids dabbling in a sacred rite that leads to adulthood. Those assholes from The Hangover.

I’ve sat at roulette wheels and stood at craps tables and spoken with dozens of people. But never once did we discuss the events of the day. Presidents, foreign policy, health care, etc. Okay, Vegas is not exactly where a person discusses those things. But I’ve never even heard a “fucking Obama,” or previously, a “fucking Bush.”

The people I play with could be redneck birthers from the deepest of Mississippi or a gay black Jew from Portland, but I don’t care because in Vegas we’re all in the shit together.  There’s a sense of camaraderie as we fork our monies over to multi-billion dollar corporations.

Similarly, I’ve never discussed politics when I’m at a ball game. Even when I’m with people I know, people who I am comfortable discussing controversial topics with, I find sporting events to be sacred rituals where the divisiveness of the political realm should not enter.

Over the weekend, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then himself. Obviously an unpleasant story. Following the shooting, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock wrote this article in which he spoke of two things: 1) the fact that the Kansas City-Carolina game scheduled for Sunday should not have been played (I disagree, and it was played); and 2) something about guns:

How many young people have to die senselessly? How many lives have to be ruined before we realize the right to bear arms doesn’t protect us from a government equipped with stealth bombers, predator drones, tanks and nuclear weapons?

During halftime of Sunday night’s Cowboys-Eagles game, Bob Costas spoke for about 90 seconds regarding the shooting, and more specifically Whitlock’s column:

It should be noted that Costas regularly does a halftime commentary on the sporting events of the day. Though I can’t remember one this overtly political.

The reaction by certain people was not pleasant:

That type of reaction was not surprising. Guns are an incredibly divisive issue in this country. I made my thoughts on them pretty clear a few months ago in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shooting.

I firmly believe that this country needs to have a real dialogue about guns. We cannot have a Twitter debate with Ted Nugent shooting 140 characters of bullets at Michael Moore, and Michael Moore eating them and then regurgitating them and spewing them back at Nugent. That is not how discourse works. It requires, first and foremost, respect for the opposing party. You don’t have to respect their position, but you have to respect them as a person.

A larger question is whether Bob Costas should have said this on national TV during halftime of a football game. Sports, like gambling in Vegas, has no political or cultural boundaries. I am a Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs are owned by the Ricketts family, many of whom are right-wing ideologues on par with the Koch brothers. Am I no longer a Cubs fan? Of course not. I’m not even remotely ashamed.

When I go to a game, I don’t discuss politics with the strangers sitting next to me. But it is not because sports should always be independent from one’s belief system. It’s simply that politics – like another controversial topic, religion – and sports rarely intersect. For instance, if Bob Costas out of the blue started advocating for a single payer health care plan, I think people on both the right and left would be scratching their heads.

But an act of gun violence that directly abuts upon the realm of sports can – and should – be addressed.  We can easily ignore Belcher’s actions as just two out of the eighty-seven gun deaths perpetrated daily in this country. Or – like Aurora, like Columbine, like other incidents that gain national attention – we can refuse to ignore it or write it off as a senseless tragedy. It is not senseless. It makes perfect sense when Costas quotes this from Whitlock:

What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.

That is a complete rebuff to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” excuse that is promulgated by the NRA and their ilk. If he had only his fists – or even a knife – the results would most assuredly have been different. And saying something like “a spoon and fork leads to obesity,” or “if he wanted to kill himself, he would have found another way,” are false equivalencies, or as I like to think of them, bullshit.

***

Let’s be frank: politics has always been part of sports. The only difference is that most of the time, we as a country are not divided.

In 1936 German boxer Max Schmeling defeated Joe Louis. The fight symbolized the coming war between Germany’s Aryan superman philosophy and America’s melting pot of culture and creed, though one that was itself incredibly divided and bigoted. Langston Hughes, writing about Louis’s loss, said:

All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.

Joe Louis was not simply another black fighter who happened to be an American. He transcended race and became a symbol not just for the African-American community, but for America as well.

In a 1938 rematch, Louis beat Schmeling. “I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me,” he later said.

Interestingly, even though he was promoted by Hitler as a model for the Aryan race, Schmeling never embraced this element of his fame:

I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal.

Similarly, the 1980 semi-final hockey game, in which the U.S. defeated the favorite Soviet Union, is considered by many to be the finest moment in American Olympic history. It’s not because we won a game that we shouldn’t have. It’s because of who we defeated: our political and ideological enemy.

Arguably the most important clash between politics and sports is the 1948 integration of baseball where Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in the game since 1880. Even within the Dodgers’ clubhouse, Robinson’s inclusion was controversial. But as the abuse from opposing players and fans increased, Robinson’s teammates stood by him. The significance of Robinson in the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. And his very specific profession is of paramount importance, though it is often overlooked.

Sports play a unique role in the national psyche. First, as mentioned above, sports span even the most fervent of cultural divides.  It really doesn’t matter that my background and your background are so different; we root for the same team, and that is what unites us. There is in sports a built-in acceptance that despite our differences, we still have enough similarities to make us comrades-in-arms.

Secondly, sports are the ultimate examples of meritocracy. If you’re Lou Gehrig, you play. If you’re Wally Pipp, sorry kid, you don’t. It is surprisingly easy to root for a guy who makes your team better, no matter what he looks like. And Jackie Robinson was a damned fine player.  Basically, Jackie Robinson gave otherwise prejudiced people a reason to accept a black man as an equal.

It is because of these unique qualities of sports that made Jackie Robinson’s arrival a prelude to the civil rights movement.

Of course Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier is not the same as Bob Costas talking about gun culture. But that doesn’t mean that what Bob Costas and Jason Whitlock did was wrong. On the contrary, to broach a topic as toxic as guns in America they have intentionally invited controversy. (Even though Whitlock began the debate, I think Costas did something much riskier in speaking about it in the middle of a nationally televised football game.)

Jackie Robinson taught us that sports can never be fully divorced from politics; instead, sports must sometimes be the soapbox from which political change is encouraged. Costas and Whitlock have taken that lesson, seen an opportunity for reasonable discourse, and run with it.

Then we got the unsurprising reaction from the rightwing towards Costas and Whitlock. In the aftermath of a shooting spree like Colorado or a murder-suicide in Kansas City, people rely upon this faux compassionate excuse: “it’s too soon.”

That’s the three worst words a person can use. It is never too soon to discuss the causes of misery and tragedy. To try to prevent another one of these horrors from happening does not tarnish the memory of the victims by politicizing their deaths; it in fact honors them by saying that we will work to stop this from ever happening again.

Or we can blame steroids. Or football. Or we can say that we’ll never know why this happened and can relegate this event to the Menagerie of Mysterious Horrors of History along with Columbine, Bernie Goetz, and Charles Whitman.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture of meanness and snark. Our political debates are reduced to hate-filled diatribes on social media. So many of us are divided not so much by the political issues, but by an Us vs. Them mentality that makes any attempt at civil discourse impossible. Go to the pages of Daily Kos or Red State and try to find even a backhanded compliment about the other side.

All we do is preach to the choir and then turn around and throw rocks at the church across the street. What upsets me the most is that I am just as guilty of this behavior as those I rail against.

One Response to “Sports and Politics”

  1. Kiko Jones December 5, 2012 at 23:30 #

    Good stuff, Jacobo.

    One thing, tho: it is my unscientific and completely anecdotal theory that the 1980 hockey victory vs the USSR has done more damage than good. I see it as a catalyst for modern day, love-it-or-leave-it jingoism, like no other event.

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