The Sporting Nature of Politics

In the world of sports fandom, there are millions of reasons to watch and follow. The biggest reason, of course, is picking a team that best represents us. We do this in many ways: regionally, socially, familial. By picking a side, we also adopt the colors, the mythos, and we engage in and perpetuate a hatred for the opposition.

With so many people bleeding the colors of their favorite teams, raising their children to be fanatics themselves, it got me thinking: Could this be true of the current major political parties?

Are parents raising good little Democrats? Republicans?

Do we cheer for our parties just because we belong to them?

Sporting motifs have crept into the lexicon of politics: Political pep ralliescheering on our candidates, the candidates are giving it a full court press, throwing one’s hat in the ring (boxing circa 1900). When President Obama accepted his party’s nomination in 2008, it was on the turf of Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos.

Are American politics becoming more of a sporting culture than a political one?

In order to work this out, let’s look at some of the major athletic rivalries around the world, and compare their basis for antagonism with our current political climate.

Political Philosophy and Class

El Clásico— FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid (Soccer)

The hatred between these two sporting fans goes back to 1936. Though, if you ask a Barça and a resident of Madrid, it goes back even further. During Francisco Franco’s Civil War, he attempted to purge any form of nationalism that spurned his Spanish utopia. Caught in the wake was Barcelona. Staunchly Catalan and the birthplace of almost all of Spain’s political ideologies, Franco did what he could to tear down Barcelona. This included its fabled football team. Real Madrid was seen as Franco’s pet. For the Catalonians FC Barcelona football heroes are also political heroes. This includes the former president of the club, Josep Sunyol, who was arrested by Francoist troops and executed. Since, the vitriol between the two clubs has culminated in what many observers call the “reenactment of the Spanish Civil War” during each El Clásico. Barça fighting for revolutionaries and progressive thinking while Real represents the establishment.

Comparison–Government or Not

Democrats and Republicans view the opposition as attempting to dismantle what they see as the ideal for America. Republicans are seen as the establishment; people who feel that anyone can make it so long as they try hard. Democrats are seen as the revolutionaries; people trying to level the playing field by taking from those who have and giving to those without. The leader of each party might as well be Franco.

As the 1% vs. 99% debate has shown us, class and political philosophy definitely identify your political leanings. Whether you agree or disagree with Mitt Romney’s 47% claim, want less or more government, or adhere to progressive thought or status quo life, you will find a home philosophically with the Republicans or Democrats.


Old Firm–Rangers vs. Celtic (Soccer)

Two men meet on the streets of Glasgow. One decked out in green and white. The other in blue and white. They start fighting. Why? you ask. One is Celtic. The other is Ranger. This means one is Catholic; the other is Protestant.

Okay, maybe too over-simplistic, but there is truth in this. The sectarian hatred between Celtic and Rangers is deep and intertwined in Scottish lore. But more than that, the violence between the two groups is indicative of the lack of common ground between their leaders. Scottish officials, leaders of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, and the Scottish Football League can plead all they want, but until social issues are abated, the rivalry will steam forward with a fierceness that bests anything we have in the United States.

Just look at the history between these two teams. In 1980, the fans of each team stormed the field after a Celtic 1-0 victory over Rangers. Parts of the stadium were used as weapons, including iron railings, wooden stanchions, and bricks. Over two hundred were arrested. Each team was fined £20,000. Match commentator Archie MacPherson described the incident this way,

This is like a scene now out of Apocalypse Now … We’ve got the equivalent of Passchendaele and that says nothing for Scottish football. At the end of the day, let’s not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other.

Ultimately, the riot convinced civic leaders to ban alcohol at all sporting events in Scotland.

Comparison— Republicans vs. Democrats: A God Gap?

If Celtic vs. Rangers is Catholic vs. Protestant, then the brouhaha between Republicans

Pew Research

and Democrats might be considered a God Gap rivalry. According to a Pew Research article, more Democrats and Independents doubt God’s existence than in the past–17 points from 2002 to 2012 for white Democrats or 85% to 68% of respondents. In comparison, 92% of white Republicans replied that they have never doubted the existence of God. You can see it in the blogs and comments in various articles. Democrats claiming that religion is a form of mental illness, while Republicans chastising Democrats for a hedonistic view of life.

Could it be argued that raise Christian leads a person into the Republican party while living outside of a mainstream Christian faith makes you a Democrat? I don’t know. I doubt it, but the numbers are skewing that way.


India vs. Pakistan (cricket)

Um, what? Cricket? Yeah.

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting. George Orwell.

This sums up the world’s largest rivalry.

And one that hardly anyone in the U.S. even knows about.

Nothing says winning and losing like a game with the threat of nuclear war hanging over it.

Since the birth of both nations in 1947 with the departure of the British from Indian subcontinent, the two countries have fought four wars between each other since. Though the birth of Pakistan comes from the intense societal rivalries between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, what sets this rivalry apart from the “Old Firm” is that cricket actually unites a religiously fractured Pakistan. The bloody severance of the two nations continues in territorial disputes and wars over a tiny splinter of land. This chasm makes our own Civil War look like a mere squabble between two neighbors over a shrub.

Comparison–Blue, Red or Purple?

Red, blue and purple

When our parties first formed, they coalesced along geographical boundaries: Federalists in the Northeast, Anti-Federalists (later Jeffersonian Democrats) in the South. Since then, American politics has found dividing lines all across America–Mason-Dixon Line, 36˚30˚ (Missouri Compromise line), North/South. Today, America is divided by the colors red, blue and purple. The blues live on the coasts east and west, Reds in Middle-America, and the purples… well, they don’t really have a home. The divisions here are just as deep as those between India and Pakistan. Blues and reds fight for the purples like Pakistan and India scrap over Kashmir. I know few people born after Nixon’s horrific administration that don’t tend to the politics of their region. Of course, there are the outliers. Reds living deep in the land of blue. Blues hiding their secrets in the land of red. When viewed from afar, sectionalism trends to dictate politics also.


In the realm of sports fandom, there are a few ethos that must be adhered to. Being a Cubs fan myself, some of these are difficult, trying, and at times, I have considered legal help in divorcing myself from those Lovable Losers from the North Side. Simply put, true fans will do some of the following:

  1. No bandwagoning. Once a fan, always a fan. You bleed Red Sox red, Cubbie blue, Packer’s green and gold. You stand beside your team through thick and thin.
  2. You cheer for your local team, especially if, during your formative years, your city fielded a team. They are you, you are them. They are the DALLAS Cowboys, your are resident of their town.
  3. Your emotions are tied to your team. If your team loses to an archival, you need a day or two to recuperate. If your team wins, no wrong can occur in your world.
  4. When your team screws up, you forgive. When your owners/managers screw up, you demand change!

Of course there are many more, but for the sake of determining whether politics has become akin to sports, these work well.

Comparison–um, just look at the recent election campaign.

It is in the land of fanaticism that politics loses its integrity. In 1888, James Russell Lowell–member of the Fireside poets and U.S. ambassador to both Spain and England–wrote the following of political parties and their membership:

If the politicians must look after the parties, there should be someone to look after the politicians, somebody to ask disagreeable questions and to utter uncomfortable truths; somebody to make sure, if possible, before the election, not only what, but whom the candidate, if elected, is going to represent.  James Russell Lowell, Political Essays, p. 318

Somewhere between Lowell’s keen observation and this election, American’s have lost the ability to ask those questions. They have become fanatics to the party.

In May of 2011, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe met to discuss the role of political parties in politics. One of their conclusions would seem counterintuitive to today’s American party system. They concluded:

Increasing participation and representation further requires providing citizens the tools necessary to hold politicians and government accountable. Citizens also need access to non-classified data in order to contribute to society and enhance the democratic process. Participation can also be enhanced through new e-tools and technologies, particularly providing access to information on political parties and the electoral process in the participating States.  ODIHR report

Today’s fanatical party member will ignore the failures and faults of their own party when confronted by someone from the other. They will speak in circles. They will try to turn the table around and find fault with the other party. They will not jump off the bandwagon. They will bleed for their party. What they will not do is demand change from within.

Party affiliation is a world of sports mania.

Party members have adopted the mythos as their own, and chastise all those that disagree with them. They will hound the opposition with “trash talk” and will perpetuate a hatred of anyone not on their team. They refuse to work within a united system, and, instead, see politics as a game to be won, a championship to be earned, a trophy to be hoisted. The elected officials their athletes. Washington D.C. the arena. They are the fans paying admission, just so they can watch the other team lose.

This may work in the realm of sports.

It is dooming America in politics.


One thought on “The Sporting Nature of Politics

  1. Very well written. Unfortunately, America is already doomed, unless Americans unite and do not let their emotions get the better part of them, but rather think rationally and come up with real solutions to the issues and apply them and create REAL change, not just fluff.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s