We are at a point in time where half of the country is very happy about a recent outcome, and half is very disappointed (to put it lightly). I refer to the U.S. Presidential Election of course, but the same general statement is true the day after the Superbowl, the conclusion of the World Series, or the NBA Finals. There are obvious parallels between sports and politics. And in a country obsessed with both, we have started to lose track of how we are supposed to behave when rooting for each. That’s dangerous to both our pastimes and our political institutions.
Unlike big elections, sports are a welcome constant in life. Seasons come and go, overlap, climax, begin anew, plod along, and fly by, but sports are always there to be our diversion. Fantasy sports are a vehicle to immerse ourselves even further by giving meaning to games we would never care about otherwise and turning us into fans of kickers, tight ends, and wide receivers from other people’s favorite teams. Your fantasy leagues and sports loyalties connect you to old friends spread far and wide, co-workers whom you would otherwise struggle to find conversation with, and family members that will be expecting plenty of smack talk over the holidays. You may need those people in your life a lot right now, and sports might start that conversation. This is why we love sports. They are pure diversion. And at this point in time many could really use a diversion.
Sports and politics may seem similar on the surface. Both pit one team against another, and as fans we have deep rooting interests that often cannot be overridden by logic or scandal. Athletes score points for their team that don’t mean anything when the next game comes around. Politicians score political points that most of the time don’t mean anything either. Sometimes your side is great and winning everything, sometimes they stink. Your opponent’s fans will inevitably gloat when things are going their way, and find never-ending excuses when fate turns on them. When you see a bumper sticker supporting an opposing team or politician you make a certain kind of judgment about the driver. In all these ways sports and politics are similar, but there is one fundamental way in which they are different. If your sports team loses a huge game you feel awful. You question the coaches, criticize the refs, wonder how things would have turned out differently if a certain play hadn’t happened, and then… you can let it all go. The game has no bearing on the long-term quality of your life. In politics this may not be the case. We root for our side leading up to elections, we watch results and questions strategies just like we do sports. But at the end of the day, these results matter to people’s lives. Maybe not yours, but somebody is deeply effected by the outcome of each an every election.
As our society has become more divided and partisan, commentators have quipped that people now root for politics like they do sports. They are locked into their beliefs and root for their side unconditionally. In today’s world I would be just as likely to convince someone to change their vote as they would be to convince me to root for anyone other than the Green Bay Packers. But we need to remember that sports and politics are inherently different, and by blurring the line between how we approach them, we risk both becoming ineffective in their purpose. Here is a friendly reminder about how we should approach each:
Sports are where we are allowed to have a blind, fiercely loyal, life-long rooting interest that never needs to be reexamined or recalibrated.
Sports are where we are allowed to trash talk and gloat and where we are expected to take our lumps in return when the other team’s fans come off a win.
Sports are where we can care a lot, but not so much as to feel like our lives have gotten fundamentally worse when our team loses.
Politics are were we must take a more measured and reasoned approach. A decision about who to support should not be taken lightly or made automatically.
In politics we cannot afford to blindly root for our side, we must criticize our own team just as much as the other.
In politics, When our side wins, we must be gracious and unifying, and we should expect the same in return when we lose. Unlike sports, the outcome of an election could have life altering consequences for millions of people, that distinction cannot be overstated.
After a champion has been crowned in the NFL we all remain separate in our support for our favorite team. We are still Bears, Cowboys, Jets, Chargers etc. fans, and that’s great, in sports you can be (should be, even) a hardcore partisan because that’s what makes it fun. After an election though, our party loyalties must give way to the mindset that we are all on the same team. We’re Americans first and partisans second.
So let’s not ruin sports by treating them like politics , and let’s not ruin our country by treating politics like a sport.