Growing up, PJ and I played hoops together for our small private school’s team. We weren’t great, but we took our shit seriously. Spent hours at the neighborhood courts. Worked on our “practice plan” from summer camp when we could. Pored over Slam and kept up with the prospects percolating at Lincoln or Oak Hill or wherever.
We are now a decade removed from our hoop days, and at some point traded Slam for The New Yorker and the other pretentious markers of our class and demo. We shop organic and vote Democrat. PJ’s shaken off his powder blue NBA headband and replaced it with a trendy haircut. Always a more conscientious consumer than I, he buys his grains and miscellaneous nut butters in bulk (never peanut).
At dinner, I bring up the perennially and maybe perpetually disappointing Washington basketball franchise, the one we grew up caring about as The Bullets. PJ says he hasn’t been watching much NBA. He doesn’t have a TV, too much to do, and so familiarly on. Anyway, he tells me, sports are the “opiate of the masses.” He’s quoting Marx, who said it about religion, from his seat in a sports bar (my choice); there’s some college football game on in the other room. Of course PJ was being slightly ironic; he was a vegan sitting across from someone eating a mess of pulled pork, he was eating falafel in a sports bar, there was no other way for him to be. It was a tossed-off comment, but there was something about it that rang true and echoed. It mattered, probably, that we were in D.C. and that it is 2017.
Noam Chomsky takes up the matter in his 2002 book Understanding Power, where he writes about sports as if it were a sort of distracting chew toy:
Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way—so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports...
So you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.
Though this argument does reek of elitism—sports are at the bottom rung of the cultural ladder, perhaps because they’re so much more popular than adjacent human endeavors like visual art or dance—there’s also something democratic at the core of it. Chomsky is saying that people are prevented from engaging with politics by a power structure designed to maintain the status quo. The structure is designed to keep people occupied so that they won’t look for ways to improve their lives—economically, socially, whatever—through a potentially more disruptive means like politics. As Chomsky writes elsewhere in the book, the masses have been "trained" to be content with their lot.
Some questions persist. For one, why can’t people get involved in politics? How are they prevented? Everyone has a vote, and the news is still tenuously free, for the most part. If you wanted, you could flip from ESPN to PBS with the absolute minimum of physical effort. So why do people who are so deeply occupied with sports—and who are only faintly or facilely engaged with politics—not want to make that flip?
Chomsky has an answer for this, sort of. He talks about the phenomenon of sports radio, a sprawling noise-washed landscape in which you will (very) periodically come across people with astonishingly intricate and advanced sports knowledge; Chomsky wonders what would happen if that intelligence were applied to politics. The feats of memorization and recall, the strategic thinking, the bold, confident arguments being made—you might be surprised to learn that Chomsky finds this all quite impressive, and proof that people, even the masses as he defines them, are readily capable of complex thought and analysis.
They just choose not to apply it to politics.
In 2016’s Presidential election, voter turnout plummeted to a 20-year low. Roughly the same number of Americans watched the Super Bowl as voted in the presidential election. Before the President and his administration turned it into a tiresome and blunt rhetorical instrument, there was much consternation about “fake news”—narrow, partisan, mostly-or-wholly false disinformation that frothed at the top of the online news feeds that many voters use to keep themselves up to speed on what is (or isn’t) going on in the world. As CNET observed, one of the most marked features of fake news is how obviously fake it becomes if you venture to look beyond the headline. Many millions did not.
Chomsky is right that people aren’t as intellectually engaged with politics as they might be. But he’s wrong to identify sports as a kind of lowbrow cultural waste product; elsewhere he associates sports fandom with “non-literate and non-technical cultures,” which is about as dismissive as dismissals get. It seems more fair to say that sports are a necessary counterpoint to politics, and that their popularity serves in some ways as a corrective. They are a release and an escape, but they’re an effective and popular one because they are devoid of ideological content, of coercion. The conversation around them is not without politics—no conversation ever is—but when it comes to the games themselves there’s no convincing going on. There’s simply competition.
Of course, politics and sports are not entirely different animals; often the impulses and emotions at work are one in the same. This is something cable news has seized upon, down to their production gimmicks: is not CNN’s perennial “countdown clock,” ticking ever onward toward everything from a State of the Union address to the premier of a new reality TV show, a nod in this direction? I’m actually surprised that their political panels haven’t adopted a scorekeeping component ala “Around the Horn,” with Anderson Cooper hovering a discerning finger over two buttons, one red, one green.
Cable news, intense partisanship, gridlock - these and other factors have inspired some to coin the phrase “the sportsification of politics.” Could it be that engagement with politics, which used to be considered an intellectual pursuit (to Chomsky it was), has increasingly taken on the role of sports? Politics is always adversarial, but usually there’s an element of decorum that distinguishes it from tackle football. Long removed from the orators and writers who occupied positions of political power in the past, we instead get a blustering blowhard who has mastered the art of the internet troll. This isn’t Dwight Eisenhower, an austere, (Republican) military general who bemoaned the superficiality of TV culture even as he used it to get himself elected. This is TV culture creating a monster in its own image and placing it in the Oval Office.
Trump aside, what people are feeling is that politics seems more and more an experience of manipulation. Trustworthiness, a key voter metric, was piss poor this cycle, and for reasonable reasons. A CNN poll around the time of the Democratic convention showed that 68 percent of voters thought Hillary Clinton was not honest and trustworthy. For Trump, a poll around the general election showed 46 percent of likely voters trusted him; that would be a crippling number in most elections, but it was not enough to impede his victory in this one. Though Trump’s numbers weren’t good, his blustering schtick—no matter how outrageous it became, or because of how outrageous it became—carried him.
If it’s possible to draw conclusions from an election in which such a huge number of Americans opted not to vote at all, one might be that voters are sick of the familiar ways of manipulation. There are confused souls who take Trump at his word, but there are others who chose him because, for all his compulsive and incessant lying, he lies transparently. There is no manipulation; there isn’t the capacity for it. There are just the flat words of a high school football coach goading the team onward, in a direction unarticulated. We’re gonna win so much, you’ll get tired of winning.
Maybe Americans can’t really make sense of politics not because they’re dumb but because politicians often don’t make a lot of sense. They use language that’s not recognizable—think of Clinton triumphantly snapping into canned phrases like Trumped-up-trickle-down-economics. They make pandering TV commercials that feel staggeringly false; they use politics for their own self-aggrandizement. A reasonable person might prefer not to watch that, and might tune in to ESPN instead. Some might turn their votes into weapons, and aim at blowing up the system as a whole.
Could our national obsession with sports and relative indifference to politics illustrate a distaste for the phoniness and inscrutability of American politics, what Joan Didion called its “Inside Baseball” quality? It probably could. Is that skepticism well-founded? It probably is. After all, sports will not lie to us. They will not say one thing and do another. Athletes do not have the time or space to conceal their motivations at a depth beyond a pump fake; they are not covertly out for their own personal gain. They are obviously, essentially trying to win, because that is their job. It’s their ontology.
But it doesn’t necessarily need to be ours. Politics are not a game; there is more at stake, there, and there is nothing metaphorical about the assertion that, in elections, winning and losing is very much a matter of life and death. Is it dangerous to want our presidents to be as forthright and as uncomplicated as our power forwards? It’s not a rhetorical question. You’re living through it, too. You tell me how it feels.