On Team Sports and Politics

I am not a sports fan. My knowledge of sports is, shall we say, limited… I sort of understand why people are so passionate about sports, the same way I understand why some people are so passionate about Crossfit. But I don’t want any part of either of them.

The fact that I couldn’t care less about sports leaves me feeling left out of the “boys club,” but it also gives me a different perspective on the passion (fanaticism?) of the fans. I’m amazed at how strongly they can affect people. My co-hosts are perfect examples.

Pat Gray, one of my best friends, is one of the most loyal, smart and kind people I know. There are times when my emotions get the best of me, and Pat is always there to add a calming perspective about faith and principles.

Unless it’s the Monday following a BYU football loss, which seems to be happening a lot lately.

In that case, my week begins with a breathless review of every broken play, every stupid decision by the coach, and a lengthy biography of every communist traitor that the NCAA has dared to employ as a referee. I should mention, Pat did not go to BYU, he doesn’t know any of the players, and their home games are played 1,200 miles away from his home. Yet, his whole life is affected by the results of these games.

I’ve even seen his morning destroyed by what happened in a BYU rugby match. I didn’t even know BYU had a rugby team. I’m not even sure BYU knew they had a rugby team. They do, as it turns out, and they’ve actually won four straight national championships — just ask Pat.

I’ve worked with Stu Burguiere going on 20 years. He was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut so, naturally, he is a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan. Throughout the week, you can tune in to hear Stu complain about government spending on feel-good green energy. On Sundays, you can hear him cheering on a team named after a symbol of the New Deal, in a stadium lined with wind turbines and solar panels. His stated position: “I’ve made it through 40 years without a Super Bowl, I think I can power through anything short of an ISIS endorsement.”

Pat and Stu are relentlessly dedicated to their sports teams; and they are not alone. More than half of all adult Americans — and 100% of real men, I’m told — proudly call themselves sports fans.

Let’s dig into one of the great rivalries in sports history (my thanks to an anonymous friend who assisted me with this analogy): The Lakers and the Celtics in the 1980s.

Imagine you’re a Lakers fan in the early 80s and Jerry West trades Magic to the Celtics for Bird. Later, he trades Worthy for McHale and Parish for Jabbar? Then, the next year, Pat Riley and K.C. Jones switch teams. Then imagine that the next year after that, the Lakers decide to wear green and white and the Celtics go with purple and gold. And, finally, a year after that, in case your head isn’t already spinning, the Lakers move to Boston and the Celtics move to LA. And with that last move, the NBA logo man, Jerry West, goes to the Celtics as the GM.

At any point, based on the players, the coaches, the team colors or even the location of the team — would you switch allegiances?

What about when the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis? Colts fans, did that drive a stake through your hearts? Or did you say to yourself, “business is business — they needed a new stadium”? What happened when the Ravens became Baltimore’s team? If you were still a Colts fan, did you suddenly become a Raven’s fan?

What if your team cheats? What if they get caught and fined for recording another team’s practice or deflating balls? Do you remain loyal because they’re still winning? I mean, “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,”[1] right? Or is there virtue in playing by the rules?

I could go on and on…

My understanding, from my friends who are sport fans, is that they would identify with Stu’s position — short of their team endorsing ISIS, they are true blue and would never give up on their team.

Why? Because it is their team. What makes some entity that charges you a lot of money to go to the game, makes you pay through the nose for mediocre food and blacks-out local broadcasts if they fail to sell enough tickets to the game deserving of your loyalty is beyond me. BUT — and this is a big but — the reality is it does not matter. I don’t mean to the sports fan; I mean in life. It does not matter if you are a Lakers fan or a Celtics fan, an Eagles fan or a Giants fan or, as depressing as this may be, a Miami Dolphins fan (like the president of my company). The world won’t change based on who you root for or why.

In sports, the teams with the most disastrous histories of losing become incubators for the best fans. We call these fans “die hards” because their teams are seemingly always trying to kill them. This sort of blind loyalty is only excusable in the world of sports because it means nothing. It does not impact our jobs or our economy or our society — it is, at the end of the day, just a game. In any other context, this sort of blind loyalty would be — and is — insane.

As it relates to politics, the appropriate level of team loyalty is zero.

As George Washington (and our founders) warned us — blind loyalty in our system of politics has real ramifications. The Red and the Blue of our political environment pits us against one another — our team against their team. Our politics should not define us. An Eagles fan should be able to be friends with and respect a Giants fan (and vice versa), and they can and are. But this same bi-partisan respect does not exist in our politics today.

But it is worse than that. The political climate today, besides being team focused, is closer to the hypothetical Lakers vs. Celtics scenario I proposed above than to what typically happens in sports.

The GOP did stand for small government, free trade, the protection of the unborn, the Constitution, etc… But what is it now?

The Democrats were “for the little guy” who couldn’t do it alone, they were against the big banks, they were against spying and drone warfare… But what does the party stand for today?

If your party dumps its principles and proceeds to engage in the sort of behavior that you wouldn’t accept from a toddler, you should abandon that party — immediately. Loyalty to your party in the face of constant abuse doesn’t make you a brave and virtuous soldier, it makes you a helpless, yet complicit victim.

We are the most dynamic country in history. For us to have allowed ourselves to be held captive by the parties is one thing, but to willingly settle into what feels like a perpetual state of Stockholm Syndrome is quite another. Too many people seem to be willing to defend their party’s decision to abandon its principles for no other reason than the good of the “team”. But this isn’t a game — this stuff actually matters. If the team changes, are we obligated to change with them? If they lie, must we become liars in defense of the team?

Watching the VP debate was enlightening, though not surprising. Seeing Gov. Pence, who I believe is a good man, allow himself to be made a liar, in his defense of a liar, was shameful. Watching Gov. Kaine acting like an ass (although I’ve heard he is a really good and decent man) is beneath him — and us: But all in the name of the team.

If you’re like me, you look at Washington and ask how these people (not just the VP candidates, but also the strategists, the “elites,” the elected officials, etc.) can live with themselves? How can they go back on their principles the moment they feel it may benefit them to do so? Does this not bother them?

It’s because it’s all about the team. It’s blind loyalty to a mindless cause — likely starting with what they believe are good reasons. (If I don’t go along, I will be voted out, and then what? How much difference can I make from the outside?) But likely ending with a desire for power and control.

Why do we allow the ends to justify the means and the letter that follows the name to supersede everything?

As John Adams said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Many have written that 2016 has been an unmitigated disaster, filled with tragic deaths, terrible events, and the universe’s worst political candidates this side of Kang and Kodos.

A lot of the time, I feel exactly the same way.

But these moments of real strife can be the moments of real character. Challenge yourself. Ponder and pray. Don’t let your vote be a passive matter of partisan habit. Think beyond one election and think about who you are, what type of country and society you want and what type of leadership we deserve?

What would 2016 look like in a world rid of the political “teams”? What would 2020 and beyond look like? Would we have the two least likable politicians EVER? Would we have two proven liars running out the clock in hopes that the other will screw up badly enough to cost him/her the game? OR would we have an engaged citizenry demanding that its politicians comport themselves with decency and reflect the principles that they actually believe in?

Has either candidate earned your vote? Or are you just voting against the other one? Don’t get me wrong, I get the “binary choice” argument — but don’t we want more? Don’t we deserve more?

We can do better. We must demand more. No more of this blue team vs. red team nonsense. Let’s focus on the principles of the men and women we elect and stop treating the future of our country as if it were a game. It isn’t.

[1] Hat tip to Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders.