Sport Trumps Politics

I love sport at a lot of levels, for a lot of reasons. The part that keeps bringing me back to the Almanac is sport’s narrative and explanatory value.  Start talking about politics, economics or social issues and most people’s eyes glaze over in either frustration or confusion.

Sport simplifies. Offers context.  Analogies we can all understand.  As Emma Westwood observed on these pages last year “sport is the spine that everything else hangs off”.

Last week I awoke to Donald Trump’s voice as the first news item, ridiculing his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination (they aren’t really ‘opponents’ as they come from the same party and sort of share a similar philosophy – much like Turnbull and Abbott; Gillard and Rudd).

There was “little Marco”, “lying Ted” and other schoolyard taunts. These days I don’t bother much with politics.  It’s all been reduced to running a protection racket for your own ‘gang’ or ‘family’.

It was ever thus. Ambrose Bierce defined politics in his Devil’s Dictionary as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles”.  It’s just that these days the spin and manipulation is so blatant that I long ago stopped listening – be it Turnbull, Shorten or Pell.  Tony Soprano and Ray Donovan offer clearer explanations of political behaviour than Insiders.

I grew up on American politics as much as Australian. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy’s, LBJ, Nixon, Carter.  Reagan was highly principled and effective – even if you didn’t like his ideas.

But in Trump I was listening to Goebbels-like propaganda ridiculing individuals and groups – them – not their ideas and arguments.  Make them ‘less than’ so that their ideas and interests can be dismissed rather than debated.

And a frustrated US working and middle class seemed to be buying it as expressing their anger and confusion, if not likely to deliver on their aspirations. A world of Trump, Putin and militant Islam seems a scary prospect for my old age.  How to explain all this?

Sport to the rescue. In particular, Jamil Smith in the December New Republic magazine:

Maybe he doesn’t explain Trump, but he uses professional gridiron football to explain the country and the people that Trump holds in his thrall.

Smith’s article is essentially an expansion on themes from books and movies he is reviewing. The first is the “Concussion” story drawing on the recent movie starring Will Smith (and the original material it grew from).  The other is a book “The Game’s Not Over” by sportswriter Greg Easterbrook that looks at the commercial success of the NFL.

Concussion tells the story thoroughly, though not completely, of an immigrant who suddenly found himself in a unique position to tell America about itself……….his story allows us to understand that American football is both a sport and a mirror, one which reflects both glorious and grotesque truths about our national character.”

Smith uses genetics and human nature to reconcile our love of sport with its eventual commercial and physical excesses. Play is in our genes.  It’s addictive and ‘nothing succeeds like excess’ as the alcohol, drugs and gambling industries readily demonstrate.

We all have a vague memory of ‘play’ in our early childhood.  “Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”

But soon enough school, work and family intrude, so “play” becomes something to be packaged, marketed and consumed more than self-created or participated in.

“The national spirit that (American) football can elicit is virtually unequaled; no other sport makes as much profit from the complete physical destruction of an opponent in order to keep him from advancing the ball a few mere yards. Football is a game that best emulates formal military battle—with the armor, the lineup, the charge, the man-to-man combat, and the inch-by-inch taking of territory, often with enormous casualties. And it is in the game’s faults—its excessive violence, inflation of manhood, and an all-but-indifferent approach to injury on and off the field—that we can see some of America’s deepest flaws. If, as Easterbrook suggests, we only celebrate the violence without fully considering the full implications of it, then we are only seeing what we want to see.”

Maturity is a process of learning to live with the contradictions you can’t manage to live without. And Smith confesses his love of football and country despite its many excesses.

“I feel we still need football. Not to rescue the NFL’s largely black labor force from its humble origins, or to entertain the masses that refuse to let it go in the wake of mounting tragedies. We need it partially because football serves as a kind of fun-house mirror for our national character.”

“The reflection comes in various forms: social movements, national tragedy, political spectacle, and yes, our sports. And we are a dramatic country, so much so that the volume of theatrics we see in every corner of our lives dulls our senses. We need more, and we need it louder. And in spectator sports, we want to see the best versions of ourselves reflected back at us, or else why would we consider it entertainment? We want to believe that inside that arena, everything will be all right because our men are the strongest, and our fight is the hardest.”

“The problem is that too few of us recognize ourselves in the beauty and the carnage the NFL presents each Sunday. The game won’t change because we’re not changing.”

Maybe that’s the best explanation for a Trump adoring and excusing culture I have read.

Maybe the ugly stumblefuck of this year’s Superbowl presaged the same in the current Presidential campaign.

Maybe Peyton Manning and Barrack Obama are both the same wearied gunslinger wandering into the distance as the movie credits roll, having shot a few outlaws, but failed to save the gold and whisky loving town from itself.

Maybe that’s why I prefer baseball of all the American pro sports. It’s rich social history and relaxed pace offering time for contemplation, not just contact and contest.

Maybe that’s why we are lucky to still preserve the essence of Australian Rules football despite all the commercial predations.

I wonder if Gillon would vote for Trump or Clinton?


  1. Interesting PB. The poor old Yanks. They get scrutinised to hell because they allow scrutiny. The price of freedom?

    Trump or Clinton. Clinton or Trump. Death by asphyxiation or death by strangulation. We have challenges ahead.

    American football may well symbolise all that is wrong with America. But it also contains triumph over adversity, team work, tactical thinking, speed, endurance, perseverance. These are all good things. So does it also symbolise the good in the USA? And there is some good.

    I read somewhere that the purpose of reminding people of “sin” is to prevent them (and therefore society) from descending into a self obsessed, narcissistic hell. Well, the concept of sin has been trashed, and we have Trump and Clinton. Join the dots.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Trump “makes the obscene palatable” .
    Quote directed at Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’. Dips, most gripping TV series since The Sopranos IMO.
    PB, “Beauty and Carnage” says a lot about sport and humanity.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Good stuff, PB. I would imagine Gillon would avoid voting so as to not confuse the power relationship

  4. Marvellous, as always, Peter.

    Your piece got me thinking, something I don’t do often these days, that perhaps the apocalypse IS upon us.

    Take this story for example:

    In September 2007 during a debate amongst the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2008 Presidential election in New Hampshire, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator for the great state of New York was asked a question (or two) on sport.

    Moderator: Senator Clinton, where are you on this? Red Sox or Yankees?
    Clinton: Well, I hate to say it in front of this New Hampshire crowd – I’m a Yankees fan. Have been for a long, long time.

    Moderator: Senator Clinton, what about a World Series – Yankees and Cubs?
    Clinton: Well, you know, I’ve worried about that because I think, given the Cubs’ record, which of course, I hope it happens, but it could very well be a sign of the coming apocalypse, were that to ever occur (much mirth followed Hillary’s attempt at hilarity)

    Let’s fast forward to 2016

    When the Democratic Party meets in Philadelphia to nominate its candidate for the 2016 Presidential election at the parties convention in late July it’s expected HRC will be named as the parties choice.

    Men, women, children worldwide are fearful that come Oaks Day D J Trump may have secured enough electoral votes to become the 45th President of the United States. Some suggest a Trump ascension to the White House, (could there possibly be a whiter house?) may usher in the “end of the world as we know it”

    In early March Las Vegas bookmakers had installed the Chicago Cubs as the 4-1 favourite to win the 2016 World Series.

    The MLB post season begins the first week in October. If the World Series goes to a Game 7 decider it could coincide with a certain poll held on the first Tuesday in November.

    Stay tuned, go Cubbies, it’s our year.


  5. Mic – this is excellent and adds another intriguing layer to the whole presidential campaign.

  6. PB

    Insightful and thought provoking, as ever

    As a teen and Uni student in the 80s, life was dominated by Reagan (and Thatcher) and the USSR. It was scary time both in terms of world peace and also the rise of the Right.

    Now, my teenage kids face a world potentially led by Trump or Clinton, H, neither of whom are fit to govern. What’s the Right’s alternatives? Cruz is hated by nearly as many Republicans and Rubio has no real experience to speak of (yes, Obama had less/same, but I think that showed initially with his stumbles that he was mature enough to recover from)

    And why isn’t there a new wave of Democrats coming on the back of Obama’s 8 years. Why have they got a choice between Hilary and an aging Nordic style socialist who isn’t really a viable option, sadly.

    So, what hope the next few years for my two?

    Settle in and watch the NFL I suppose.

    Mind, you, capitalism is alive and well witnessing Baseball (and to a lesser extent, NBA) salaries


  7. Phil – love House of Cards. And they’re making a new series!

  8. Mic Rees says

    Thanks Litsa.

    I thought it was just another feeble attempt at justifying the annual “It’s our year” bullshit I go on with.


  9. If America votes Trump in; not beyond the realms of possibilities, how does Australian political leadership respond ?

    They have always backed the US to the hilt, and again will do so publicly. In this case it will be interesting monitoring the attitudes of Australian voters. We may snicker at Trump but the measuring stick will be if he becomes president.


  10. Love it, PB.

    No one is wrong here, of course.
    We all make decisions from Our Own Points Of View.
    All of us.
    All of them.

    I know almost nothing about D Trump.
    But like many, I get my info from online and I choose what to read. Is it biased information? Written with agenda? Displayed with an agenda? Of course it is. As are TV shows and newspapers.

    Stepping (metaphorically) outside the web and looking back in, manipulation and information delivery is extraordinarily powerful.

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