Sports Fans as Metaphor
Sports fans of all manner are literally fanatics. Some are just more fanatical than others, and world football hooligans are in their own category. This time of year is particularly intense in the U.S. because of the NFL playoffs. Supporters of teams that didn’t make it are demanding that coaches and general managers be fired or that certain players be traded away or obtained. Spirited and sometimes even violent arguments break out over these issues as well as who will win each of the playoff rounds. IMHO, the distorted perspectives of sports fans are a good metaphor to explain the current dysfunctions of our political system.
What do people do when confronted with information that is contrary to their belief system? They: (1) deny the facts, (2) minimize their importance, (3) justify their continued belief, and then (4) forget what they heard. Examining some of the sports scandals in our country, both recent and ancient (anything older than two news cycles), shows that this pattern of reality avoidance is prominent. It’s true that not all fans stay loyal if the peer price gets too high. Lance Armstrong is a good example. Once his guilt became obvious, most people quit supporting him. Continuing to defend him risked public ridicule. Still, not everybody gave up. Even people like Pete Rose can earn fans back with a proper PR campaign. Today, a majority of baseball fans want to see him in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The fact that he committed the most egregious sin in baseball, betting on games, is brushed aside. I hope sports writers are not swayed, but if they are, then I’m starting a petition to put “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in as well.
Last year’s “Deflategate” scandal involving the New England Patriots followed the denial process perfectly. Patriot fans argued that: (1) Those balls weren’t really deflated. The measurements weren’t consistent / supervised / accurate. (2) It doesn’t matter if they were deflated because each team played with their own balls (yes, I get the humor of that statement). (3) Quarterbacks should have the right to use footballs they feel comfortable with. Besides they’re my team, I support them no matter what. (4) I don’t remember Brady destroying his cell phone. Why would that be important?
As a Denver Bronco fan, I am more than a little familiar with “The Patriot Way” of cheating. According to my dad, “Everybody does it.” No they don’t. When a Bill Belichick wanna be, Josh McDaniels, left New England to become the Bronco’s head coach, he brought the “Spygate” videographer with him. After orchestrating Spygate Part Deux, McDaniels was fired by owner Pat Bowlen. Bowlen does not tolerate mediocrity or cheating. The “Boy Blunder” was sent back to New England via St. Louis. That’s the Bronco way. Bowlen has sent very good players packing due to their off-field antics. And if the doping allegations against Peyton Manning turn out to be true, I am confident the organization will cut their ties to him.
I am not a crazy Denver fan. I don’t get painted up, I don’t wear Bronco paraphernalia on game day, and I refuse to take out a second mortgage just to see the games in person. But I have faithfully followed them since moving here in 1965 when they were an awful team. The first game I ever saw them play was against the Boston Patriots. The only decent player was fullback Cookie Gilchrist. For the whole game, he took one handoff after another up the middle for 3-4 yards. Sometimes, the Broncos got a touchdown or a field goal. Then the Patriots got the ball. Two or three passes from Babe Parilli to Gino Cappelletti and Boston would score a touchdown. The old AFL games were high scoring affairs that Denver usually came out on the short end of. My dad made fun of me for watching. He said it wasn’t real football. I didn’t care. They were a pro team that was practically in my back yard.
I do, however, care that Denver did not charge our military to be on the field with the players. I was proud of them for that. It didn’t surprise me. Nor did it surprise me that the Patriots are guilty of accepting the most money of any NFL team from our military to be on the field. I guess the word “patriot” has a different meaning in New England than it does to me. It’s a mini scandal, all but forgotten by most. But it reminds me of George W. Bush charging veterans $100K to speak to them. Or Dick Cheney defending his company getting hundreds of billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for a war Cheney once said we shouldn’t fight.
The current dysfunction of our government and the voters who hate it but keep reelecting the same culprits has caught the attention of psychologists and social scientists. The gist of their findings is that (a) first impressions are more important than facts (rule #1 from Newt Gingrich was to go negative early and often), (b) perception is more important than reality, and (c) emotions are more important than logic or truth. It is simply Sophistry at its finest. Human brains haven’t evolved as fast as their society and needs.
No amount of evidence will convince Donald Trump that Obama is a U.S. citizen. No facts or historical record will convince his supporters that Trump is a borderline fascist whose promises are prevented by the very Constitution he would be sworn to protect if elected. The parallels between current politics and sports fanaticism is a little scary to me. People argue over who won the debate, who lost, who made the best showing. Debates are more horse race than policy development. Many people vote for a perceived winner rather than who they think will do the best job. They fear “wasting their vote.” It’s like the fans who only buy jerseys of teams that have already won a championship.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses a particular game. The devotion of fans and their blindness to their athletes’ failings or their teams’ transgressions are ultimately of little consequence. Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg paled in comparison to what his soldiers had accomplished there. But Lincoln’s election and his policies mattered a great deal. The Civil War changed our country forever. But now, over half the people in the U.S. fail to vote in the presidential election. Voter participation for local elections, which are far more important, is even more abysmal.
When Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government the new Constitution had created, he is said to have answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Failing to vote, failing to look at facts honestly, failing to even be involved in civics is a recipe for trashing the great American experiment. I will never forget the thrill of seeing John Elway suit up the first time and play for my favorite team. But President Nixon’s decisions that sent me to Vietnam had a far greater impact. It is a lesson I wish more Americans would learn.