Sports as an outlet for the body politic

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

A few weeks ago I heard that quote above on my radio. It’s from Noam Chomsky, which I know will cause some eyes to roll, but regardless of the messenger, his observation is spot on. At least for me.

I used to be much more active in politics. I used to have long conversations about my country and could recite policy facts from memory. But as I grew more disillusioned with the Democratic party and their inability to get anything past the Republicans, I turned toward a political outlet where I felt I had a voice, and where I literally had a voice if I went to games, I turned to football.

Instead of railing against the use of drones to kill American citizens without trial (it’s a violation of the 6th Amendment), I spend countless hours wondering about whether or not someone like Hector Bellerin deserves a new contract (he does, despite an unusually poor tackle rate) and putting together detailed dossiers on players I think Arsenal should sign. I am exactly the person Noam Chomsky heard on the radio.

What I think Noam misses is the fact that as fans we have about as much say in our sports teams as we seem to have in our politics. And I would go one step further and say that they are in essence, the same institutions, run by the same people, for the benefit of these same people.

Both institutions carry the illusion that we have some real authority. There’s a belief that if you “vote them out” that you’re changing things. But just look at the corporate lobbyists who are on Trump’s transition team: Trump has put the former chief economist from Bear Stearns in charge of the Treasury Department transition and he has responsibility over appointing the advisor for “economic issues”. Bear Stearns, you might remember, were the Wall Street Investment firm that collapsed in 2008. That’s just one of a number of examples of how despite who we elect in our country, those in power remain in power. Far from draining the swamp, he’s set sail on one of those fan boats.

The same with Arsenal. What happens if you stop going to games and you suddenly make Arsenal less profitable for Stan Kroenke? Let’s say he sells up. We aren’t getting the club back, folks. We as a collective aren’t going to stump up the billions needed to buy him out. It’s just going into the hands of some other rich guy. Some other rich guy who will pander to our needs so long as we keep filling his pockets. Repeat ad nauseum. Our only hope is that whichever dear leader is running our institution lucks into a brief moment of prosperity, where trophies and glory are our meat and drink for a few years.

As far as political dialog, I have been witness to some ugly scenes about Arsenal over the last 10 years. And sides have been taken with neat little acronyms like WOB and AKB which mimic our political parties GOP and DNC. I could even strain at some parallels between people who want a more authoritarian leader who promises a return to glimmering trophies, like Jose Mourinho, and a leader who inspires hope but who is less than perfect, like Arsene Wenger. In fact, the Arsenal fan base has been as deeply divided over the way that the club has been run as the fans of America have been over the way that America has been run.

And finally, sports teams are very much like countries in that there are haves and have-nots. There are also structures in place to ensure that the have-nots stay down and that the haves stay up. These structures are not perfect. Sometimes a team like Leicester City finds a step-ladder and becomes a feel good story, the myth we like to tell ourselves about the value of hard work. But as soon as they get to the top they are quickly tipped over by the powers that be and pushed back down where they “belong.” There is also a danger that a have can be knocked off the top of the pile. That’s a process that often takes decades. Liverpool haven’t won the League since 1990 and yet they, much like England, are still considered a bit of a world economic power.

I could go on with this analogy for hours but eventually it falls down because the difference between a country and a sports team is that my country can jail me, deport me, or kill me. And my country’s policies can jail or kill other people. So, while the parallels are there between sports and politics, the reason why someone would choose to talk vehemently about sports instead of politics is simple: sports are a welcome distraction in a world where most people are powerless.

Tomorrow, sports. And if you look at all closely you will probably find some metaphors for politics.


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