Where political footballs are out of bounds

On the fantastic Bookforum Omnivore blog I found this argument by essayist and author Pamela Haag about why Americans should pay more attention to sports than to presidential politics.

Sports, she claims, better reflect the values we used to believe we could find in campaigns:

“Sports earn our attention and devotion, while this presidential election has not. The political stakes are so high today, and the politics are so very low. The presidential contest is increasingly a self-referential, insular reality TV show for the wonkish and politically inclined. Presidential politics are to the real world as the WWF is to real sports.

“Meanwhile, sports exhibit competition within the parameters of consistently-applied rules and respect for the competition; they model teamwork and cooperation and graciousness in defeat; the outcome isn’t known beforehand and is arrived at fairly.”

Well, if she watched a steady stream of booyah highlights on SportsCenter or listened to enough critics of the Bowl Championship Series, she might amend her remarks.

But Haag’s general point — that those who diminish sports as being lesser than more “serious” pursuits, such as politics, and who view them as trifling, are missing what many of us — and not just avid sports fans — instinctively feel when we watch the games. It’s pure meritocracy in action, and a renewal of communal bonding that’s hard to replicate:

“Finally, sports unify cities and towns across differences. Baltimore was without a football team for over a decade. Now that we have one, we all have something passionate that we really care about to discuss with people who don’t live in our tiny sliver of a demographic. Cab drivers talk as peers with Hopkins physicists about the Ravens, and so on. We unify as something bigger than a fractious collection of individuals or niches around our passion for a team.”

Jaded souls — especially some residing in Cleveland — may take issue with this contention.

Last week, when Omnivore produced a curated cluster of sports links, it also included this review on the Inside Higher Ed website of a recent book, “Global Sport: A Barbaric Plague,” which, as the title suggests, generally condemns the world’s sports fanaticism.

French academic scold Marc Perelman issues a litany of complaints about sports — “the opium of the people” — embodying the worst of capitalism, sexual repression, racism and more. This is hardly a new argument, but Perelman takes it to a new level. And this is too much even for leftist American sports-and-politics advocate Dave Zirin, who smartly points out examples of massive social and cultural change deriving in sports, especially Jackie Robinson and Title IX.

Though I’ve never been a fan of Zirin’s for perpetually injecting political boilerplate into the heart of the sports realm, at least he has an understanding of what makes a sports fan tick:

“I don’t think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn’t because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”

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