On Sticking to Sports in the Age of Trump

A few days ago, Ben White of Politico made a tweet that got me thinking:

One possible reaction to this is to dismiss it, because this wouldn’t seem to make it onto any reasonable list of things that are weird about Trump’s presidency. Some people like sports, some don’t, and at any rate in politics sports have generally been used as just another humanizing affectation, a set of rote keywords politicians recite to convince us that they’re just like us. I admit this works on me—I’m a sports fan, and I like feeling that my representatives are, well, just like me—but intellectually, I know it’s silly: obviously, having a lot of spare attention to give to sports is not really a recommendation for someone who wants to take on the most important and mentally taxing job in the world. Furthermore, it’s unavoidably gendered: it is for the moment still true that sports fans are more likely to be men than women, so the fact that politicians are expected to be conversant in them but not in more stereotypically female interests is a problematic double standard.

At the same time, sports are culture, and the ways we consume culture—or even pretend to consume it—tell something about us. In spring of 2009, I listened to Barack Obama speaking with the hosts of an opening day broadcasts and describing his love for the White Sox; when they asked him about his favorite White Sox; he uncomfortably dodged the question, making it clear that he simply didn’t know any: though a genuine basketball fan, his supposed love of southside Chicago baseball was pure affectation. Listening, I cringed, not just because of the inherent awkwardness of the moment but also because it revealed something unflattering about him: his overconfidence in his ability to wing it (didn’t he know he’d be asked to follow up?). That didn’t sink his presidency, but I think it’s fair to say a lack of preparation made his first term a lot less successful than it could have been. When Carly Fiorina tweeted before the 2016 Rose Bowl that, even though she was a Stanford grad, she had to root for Iowa to beat them, it was the final nail in her already doomed campaign, because it showed she was not just a panderer but an ineffective panderer, someone who thought that people love it when you make it clear you’re telling them what they want to hear. A politician’s engagement with sports gives us data just like anything else.

So dismissal wasn’t the reaction I had to White’s tweet about Trump. My reaction was that, while White seems to be right that Trump doesn’t care much about sports (except golf—but more on that in a moment), he cares a lot about sports figures. He’ll tout any relationship with any athlete, coach, or owner, even those who are despicable human beings, like Bob Knight or Ben Roethlisberger. Is it meaningful that Trump cares about these sports celebrities but not about the actual games that make them famous? I think it is. No one really believes that Trump thinks that Meryl Streep is a bad actress; he called her one because she criticized him on stage. His shot at her revealed him even more as someone to whom the entire concept of culture is foreign, except insofar as it feeds or bruises his ego. Similarly, Trump is incapable of caring about sports themselves, because those are narratives at which he is not at the center. His ability to know who these sports celebrities are without caring about the only thing that makes them celebrities to begin with is just another window on his narcissism, the way that nothing in his life other than self-aggrandizement gives him any meaning or happiness.

(This helps explain his interest in golf, as I mentioned earlier. Golf is an individual sport, of course, but it’s also inextricably bound up with business (including but not limited to his business), with the outward markers of wealth, and with important people hobnobbing with him. Even then, as far as I know he has no particular appreciation of any particular golfer’s technique or skills, apart from how their greatness rubs off on him.)

This week, of course, the news is dominated by Trump’s continual crowing about his friendship with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Bob Kraft, the Patriots’ quarterback, coach, and owner, respectively. (That’s another thing—who else would discuss players, coaches, and owners in exactly the same way, and entirely in relation to their friendship with the speaker?) And so interest in the Super Bowl is taking a particularly political tone this year: rooting for the Patriots is taken to be equivalent to rooting for Donald Trump.

Personally, I find this last narrative kind of annoying, since it seems to me another case of using sports to trivialize, rather than elevate, significant issues like racism. It’s at least convenient, I guess, that the Trump support is all on the side of the insufferable dynasty that everyone outside of New England already hates. Rooting for business franchises owned by billionaires and marketing a stew of patriotism, traditionalism, and masculinity is going to involve us all in a lot of quandaries, so I resent Trump for (add another on the pile) making it seem so morally easy.

But that doesn’t lead me to agree with Ben Domenech, editor of the archconservative magazine The Federalistwhen he argues for leaving sports as a respite from politics. While I’m not at all sympathetic to Domenech’s politics, I am, unlike some I’ve seen, sympathetic to his request. It is true, at least for me, that paying attention to politics saps one’s ability to take an interest in sports. During the primary last year I found it very hard to focus on sports; now that Trump is president I find it hard to focus on, well, anything else, and that makes maintaining this blog a struggle. It’s natural to want an escape from that and I don’t blame anyone for treating sports as that escape.

But to ask that sports commentary leave politics aside, that the entire sports world be turned into a political DMZ, is wrong, and insidious. Politics are at work in sports constantly; they bear on race, on violence against women, and of course on labor and economics. In fact, it’s by treating sports as an unpolitical space, a matter of pure common ground, that sports owners and their political cronies are able to wring money out of local governments. The president’s cozy relationship with billionaires, his business conflicts, his attacks on the diversity that underlies (and is exploited by) professional sports…all of this is on view at the Super Bowl and throughout the sporting world. There is nothing apolitical about ignoring it; it’s the most cynical kind of political silencing, like the calls not to discuss gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, out of respect for the dead.

To paraphrase Trotsky, Trump may not be interested in sports, but sports are interested in him. We don’t see politics in sports because we’re hopelessly partisan; we see politics in sports because it’s there, and when you build the habit of looking at sports with open eyes, that habit tends to follow you around.

Image credit: Donald Duffs by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

Clinton, Trump, and Reverse Sour Grapes

You’ll have to pardon me, but this is a political post—not sports politics, like stadium deals, but politics politics, presidential politics. But as I wrote a while back, the way we generally follow electoral politics is as a sport, so understanding how we relate to sports can help us understand how we relate to politics. So with that in mind, I want to use the closing days of the Trump-Clinton race to think about how we talk about losing.

One of my favorite sports paradoxes is the expression, commonly heard from a losing team or its fans after a game, “They didn’t beat us; we lost.” It’s paradoxical because “we lost” implies “they beat us” (except in the case of a forfeit, I guess), and yet it makes intuitive sense: in theory, a sports result reflects a gap in performance between the winner and the loser, and that gap can be created more by the winner’s good play (“they beat us”) or by the the loser’s poor play (“we lost”). “They didn’t beat us; we lost” suggests that in this case, the gap was 100% due to the latter. Partly, this is bitter self-excoriation: we could have won if we had played up to our potential. Partly, though, it’s a way of denigrating the winning team. The message to the winners is, “you don’t get credit for winning; in fact, you’re irrelevant to the contest. We alone determine who wins. Fortunately for you, we failed ourselves this time, but given another match it would probably go differently.”

Obviously, this is a form of sore losing, for which I propose the name reverse sour grapes. The ordinary form of sour grapes says that a loss doesn’t count as a loss, in effect, because the goal wasn’t desirable. Reverse sour grapes says that a win doesn’t count as a win because the winners didn’t prove their superiority over the losing team. Either way, the losers are spared the humiliation of having been beaten in something they wanted to win.

This is relevant now because Hillary Clinton, by all indicators, is about to blow out Donald Trump in the November 8 election. (A nice thing about politics as opposed to sports is that, since the actual “scoring” is done by voters rather than by the candidates themselves, it doesn’t feel like a jinx to talk about the likely results in advance. The odds of Clinton losing may be the same as the odds of an NFL kicker missing a 30-yard field goal, but it wouldn’t be Clinton missing the field goal; it would be the voters, or perhaps the pollsters.) Naturally, people who would prefer a candidate other than Clinton to be president are looking for ways to feel better about her impending victory, and that’s exactly what sore losing provides.

The most basic form of sore losing, in politics and in sports, is to claim that the game was rigged, the officials were biased, etc.; a loss doesn’t count if the competition wasn’t fair to begin with. We’re seeing plenty of that this year, but it’s crude and conspiratorial, and beneath many people’s dignity (though not Trump’s). Sour grapes won’t work here, obviously—you can’t pretend the presidency isn’t desirable (although “well, she won’t be able to get anything through Congress” is a move in this direction), so reverse sour grapes is a popular option. In the presidential race, I’ve seen two forms, which are mirror images of each other. The first holds that the defeated opponent is the only opponent the winner could have beaten; any other opponent would have won in a rout. This is the form you adopt when you wanted your team to go up against the winner, but they were eliminated before getting the chance. In sports this would mean the team from your league or conference or side of the bracket lost where a different team—your team—would have won (as when some bitter Cardinals fans claimed that the Dodgers intentionally let the Giants into the playoffs, out of fear that they would have to square off against the Cardinals). In this presidential race, you’d use this if you were a Republican who wanted someone other than Trump to be the nominee. All of these tweets are from the last week:

There are many, many more. (By the way, lest you think I’m egg manning, note that some of these accounts have thousands of followers.)

The other form of reverse sour grapes is to say that the winner was basically irrelevant, because the loser was so weak that anyone could have beaten them. This is the preferred stance if your chosen team would have faced the eventual loser but got eliminated before getting the chance. In this case, that means Sanders supporters who think that a Democratic victory would be just as assured with him as the nominee.

(By the way, left-wingers are capable of deploying the first form of reverse sour grapes too, as the below tweet shows, whereas a conservative can’t very well claim that Bernie Sanders would easily get elected president:)

I want to keep the political analysis to a minimum here, since it’s neither my point nor my specialty. I’ll just say that these points seem self-evident to me:

  1. Clinton certainly would have had a much more difficult election against almost any other Republican candidate, and it’s reasonable to think she’d be the underdog in such a race.
  2. Similarly, it’s reasonable to suppose that Trump’s many liabilities would have made it hard or impossible to defeat any Democrat, even one with views well to the left of the mainstream like Sanders (or Zombie Debs).
  3. At the same time, in a time of intense polarization like this one, very few candidates win the presidency by 10 points. Even Obama in 2008 only won 53-46. To say that another candidate would have “easily” won by that margin sounds less like analysis and more like hurt feelings.
  4. I voted for Sanders in the primary, but no Democratic nominee has had a program as far left as Sanders’s since…I don’t know, George McGovern? That makes it hard to say with confidence how such a platform would fare in the general election, even against Trump. Confidently suggesting, in effect, that there’s no point past which a left-wing platform would cut into a candidate’s support sounds to me like wishful thinking; I share the wish, but not the thinking.

But my point here isn’t to litigate the accuracy of these hypotheticals, which being hypotheticals cannot be accurate or inaccurate. And that’s exactly what I find annoying about reverse sour grapes: the hypothetical (if we’d played better, if you’d been up against a real opponent) frees us up to make whatever extreme claims the natural petulance of losing drives us to make, disguised as irrefutable analysis. You can beat me on the field, but not on the field in my head.

The other problem with reverse sour grapes is that it entails narrowing our thinking on a subject of real interest: how did the winner pull it off, and would they be able to adapt to beat a different opponent?

Christman is responding to an Ezra Klein piece that praises Clinton’s debate performances, and I actually agree with Christman that Klein’s piece is gushy and simplistic (the claim amounts to “her polls are better after the debates than they were before, so the debates obviously made a huge difference,” which has a serious post hoc/propter hoc problem). But going to the opposite extreme—that Clinton’s performance was indifferent or even laughable but she was bailed out by an even worse opponent—is simplistic too. First, on the narrow point, it won’t work to portray Clinton’s debate performance as identical to her try-too-hard social media outreach (“Alicia Keys”); yes, there was an occasional clunker like “Trumped-up trickle-down,” but in general she was substantive and wonkish. Treating a male candidate’s specific and policy-driven debate performance as kooky and trivial would merely make no sense; for a female candidate, it’s offensive, whether one wants to see that or not.

And on the broader point, of course, Clinton actually did mention an Alicia in the first debate: Alicia Machado, whom she used to totally sandbag Trump. Based on the dustup with the Khans, Clinton’s team knew that Trump could be baited into dragging out a feud; based on his past history, they knew that he would double down on misogyny. That perfectly set up the Billy Bush tape, which led to the sexual assault revelations, and here we are. Obviously, all of that is dependent on Trump being a horrible candidate and person…yet none of Trump’s primary opponents took advantage of any of it. Nor is it obvious that the Machado angle would have occurred to Sanders, and, if not, whether his preferred line of attack would have been as effective.

Reverse sour grapes insists on treating the winner as a fixed entity: sure that worked on Trump, but if she tried that on someone else she’d be destroyed. It’s limited in that it doesn’t consider how, in the counterfactual, the winner’s strategy would change too.  Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich probably don’t have a Machado in their closets, let alone a history of sexual assault. But it’s a mistake to think only in terms of Clinton’s tactics (mention Machado, goad Trump on his history) and not the attributes that made them possible: patience, psychological insight, political imagination. I have no idea whether any of that would be enough to beat a tougher opponent, given her own liabilities. But it’s unserious not to give it any consideration.

Sore losing is indulgent: losing hurts, and we want something to dull the pain. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse, and we’ve all given into its various forms at some point or another. But as a form of commentary, whether in politics or sports, the only proper response is a Yiddish saying, “As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim volt zi gevain mayn zaidah”: If my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather.

Image credit: “The Balloon Drop at the End of the Democratic Convention” by Lorie Shaull is used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The Sport of Politics

Welcome back! It’s the one-year anniversary of my first post here on The Spiel, and I’d love to spend this post reflecting on how it’s gone so far. However, my excitement at this milestone is tempered by the fact that it’s been almost two months since my last post here. Now, granted I’m more of a baseball fan than anything else, so my fandom always goes into hibernation a little bit during the long shadows of winter. But it’s not like there haven’t been sports stories in all of that time: the concussion crisis in football (they even made a movie about it, not that anyone saw it), the Patrick Kane case, Carly Fiorina’s tweet about the Rose Bowl, the Rams moving back to LA (as we discussed in this space a few months ago). And of course there have been a few (generally less depressing) baseball news stories in the last couple months too; a friend of mine even posted this story to my Facebook to get my thoughts, and I couldn’t summon an opinion. I started to worry that I was already entering the blogger doldrums, after about a dozen posts spread out over a year.

But then the other day it finally hit me why I couldn’t sustain an interest in sports all of a sudden: all of my attention, for months, has been sucked up by Presidential Primary politics instead.

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Mizzou and the Revolt of the Amateurs

Let me start with a confession: I never heard about the racist incidents at the University of Missouri until its football team threatened to strike unless the university president resigned. Some of the blame for my ignorance is due to me for complacently living in my white coastal bubble, and some to the national media for not treating, say, a swastika made of human feces at a major state university as worthy of coverage. However you divvy up the blame, though, I’m confident I’m not alone in only having become aware of the story once the team got involved. The football players didn’t show any more courage than Jonathan Butler, the student who threatened to starve himself to death unless President Wolfe resigned, but they certainly showed more ability to attract media attention. And, of course, more ability to achieve the protest’s aims. On Sunday, President Wolfe was saying he had no intention of resigning. Early on Monday, he was gone, along with the campus chancellor, who will resign at the end of the year.

As several writers have noted, this is a watershed moment in the empowerment of college athletes: in effect, the football team deposed two major university administrators. The Mizzou strike has generally been cheered among progressive writers: football players, so often assumed to be aloof from the functioning of the college, took a bold professional risk to speak up for their fellow black students, who are under-represented on campus but over-represented on the football team. It’s a sign of solidarity and political consciousness that would excite just about anyone on the left. The progressive columnist Kevin Drum, however, was wary of celebrating, given what the incident says about the influence that athletics wields. “Are we really happy that college football players apparently have this much power?” he asked.

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Why Teams Get Away With Public Financing Deals

Back in April, in response to this story about the Carson City Council approving a new $1.7 billion football stadium without a public vote and with no indication of who would pay for the stadium (any guesses?), I wrote the following on Facebook:

Municipal stadium deals suck, actually all sports deals suck, ban sports

And I stand by it. Public funding of stadiums is one of the most egregious sports-related abuses there are, especially if you consider the truly outlandish publicly-funded construction done for the Olympics and the World Cup: stadiums built for one event and then left to molder; facilities built with slave labor. (Which will be the more absurd and corrupt event of 2022: the World Cup, to be held in a country where summer temperatures reach 120° Fahrenheit, or the Winter Olympics, to be held in a city with no snow?) And one of the most maddening things about the public-financing scam is that it relies on one of the best parts of sports to operate: our quasi-civic pride in our sports teams.

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The Pride of the Giants

In a lovely bit of serendipity, Friday’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage coincided with the kickoff of Pride weekend in the Bay Area, which means that it also coincided with the Giants’ LGBT Night. The TV broadcast made reference to both events: the cameras showed a sampling of fans, some of them same-sex couples, dressed in rainbow-themed Giants gear, and the announcers (both former players) talked about the Supreme Court decision—not effusively, but with a quiet approval that was moving in its own way.

All of this came unexpectedly to me as I watched the game, and I thought about the history I’ve gotten to observe on this topic with this team. Continue reading