Why Americans Prefer Sports to Politics
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, October 26, 2000
The Subway Series seems to have attracted a bigger (and certainly more interested) following than the elections of 2000, even outside of New York City. More people will probably know about Roger Clemens throwing that piece of a broken bat at Mike Piazza, and ponder its significance, too—than any particular confrontation between Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.
There are a number of very understandable reasons why Americans might prefer sports to politics. Honesty and fairness are two of them. You don’t get to be Derek Jeter because your father made the right connections, or you were born into money. Or worse, because you took a bribe from rich contributors and threw the game. Ann Richards’ famous sound bite about George W’s father, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple," captured this contrast between the arena of sports and so many other endeavors, in a society in which human relations and achievements are so often corrupted by the influence of money and wealth.
And our politics offer the polar extreme of this corruption. Just look at the Presidential contest that is being served up: while there are certainly some significant differences between the Republican and Democratic nominees, these are tiny compared to what would emerge in an honest, rule-based system like baseball. And even these differences will, in many cases, soon morph into their opposites after the game is over, so that fans will barely be able to recognize the teams that they rooted for amidst the debris of broken promises and betrayals.
Much of the public sees the whole game as rigged, and it is true that most of the outcome is assured in advance. The great problems of the day will remain un-addressed or promise to deteriorate, regardless of who wins. Our 43 million citizens without health insurance, the one out of every six children that grows up in poverty, the failure of our educational system, the growing inequality of income and wealth, the self-defeating "war on drugs" that has given us the world’s biggest prison population—on these and most other crucial issues, neither candidate offers any credible proposals for change. And it is not for want of solutions—or, in the world’s richest country, a lack of means to solve these problems.
For those who would nonetheless try to understand politics, the media makes it much more difficult than following sports. In sports reporting, the most important information is clear and up front. Even if the Yankees or the Mets are not your team, broadcasters and sports writers will provide you with helpful information on the players, their batting averages and earned run averages, and some interesting history of the teams.
It is much more difficult to get what you need from political reporting. Election coverage focuses mainly on polling data, how potential voters feel about the candidates, the impressions they have created, their strategies and demeanor. And if you want to understand the issues themselves, you may need a research assistant to dig around. Will Social Security go broke when the baby boomers retire? Can we afford national health insurance for everyone? Why did the Federal Reserve raise interest rates six times over the last 16 months? What do the IMF and World Bank do? What is our government doing in Colombia, with hundreds of millions of our tax dollars?
Some of these questions have very simple answers (the first one is "no"). Others are more complex but still easily understandable with less background knowledge than most sports fans acquire in a single season. But the information provided by the media is spotty, and perhaps more importantly—heavily skewed toward the interests of those with power and wealth.
In the current election, the media really abandoned its own most basic principles by collaborating in the exclusion—led by partisan interests—of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, from the Presidential debates and most campaign coverage. Nader is not only the most qualified candidate but an American hero, a man of unimpeachable integrity who many millions would vote for if they had a chance to see and hear him in the race. But the press went out of its way to make sure that they didn’t. His exclusion is comparable to suspending Mark McGuire for the season because he criticized the relentless commercialism of major league baseball.
We have a long way to go before we have the kind of clean elections and independent press that could make politics a mass spectator sport—let alone a participatory activity—for the majority of citizens. In the mean time, it should be no surprise that most Americans choose to grab a beer and enjoy the game—at least they will have something to celebrate when their team wins.