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Last month after the Steelers’ bruising, fourth-quarter loss to the Patriots, I read a triumphant column in the Boston Globe. It begins with several paragraphs of unabashed gloating: “The more boastful among us might be tempted to point and laugh at the Pittsburgh Steelers like Rob Gronkowski did to that hapless, hopeless defensive back he overwhelmed to catch a 2-point conversion with 56 seconds left Sunday,” wrote Chad Finn. “The somewhat less obnoxious among us might merely dabble in mockery.”
Finn’s hometown bluster is understandable. If the Steelers had won, I’d have expected to see similarly breathless write-ups in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Still, the column got my blood up. I’m originally from Pittsburgh. Though I’ve lived for almost two decades in Boston, excessive digs against my home team trigger a tribal, gut-level response in me.
While my Terrible Towel-waving mother is religious in her devotion, I don’t catch most of the games. But do I want my team to win? Yes, I do. Do I instinctively regard the Steelers as “the good guys” despite glaring personal flaws of individual players, most notably our franchise quarterback? Yes. Do I see Tom Brady as a Ken doll with a wind-up arm, so automatic and risk-averse that he is completely boring to watch? You bet. If you're a Pats fan reading this, your blood is probably simmering now too.
And, that’s fine. The emotional identification with our preferred teams doesn’t matter. Or, rather, it matters, but in a harmless way. (Not so the sport of football, which is irreparably harmful to its players, according to plenty of evidence.)
Political discussions feel like zero-sum contests of winning or losing. Nuance and reason are benched.
Unlike political identities of Americans in recent years, our sports biases are relatively benign. On game days we pile into stadiums and living rooms, we scream at screens, we engage in bragging or indignant wound-licking afterward, then we get back to our lives. We shed our colorful jerseys and hats and go back to being regular citizens, family members, friends. We realize that our fandom is only part of who we are.
Wouldn’t it be more productive — and healthier — if we could leave politics on the field in the same fashion? Increasingly, we can’t. The game never ends. The red hats stay on long after the election is called. The defeated team stews and shouts down the opposition, dismissing them as deplorable bums. Political discussions feel like zero-sum contests of winning or losing. Nuance and reason are benched. If your team goes down, the other team must have cheated.
Whereas Deflategate was a silly distraction, Russian meddling in our elections, however, is a serious offense. We can argue all day about obscure catch rules and the world will not be better or worse. But if the budget stalls or the deficit balloons and programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare or Social Security are cut, millions of people’s lives will be worse off. In politics, the stakes of the game are higher. The spectacle in Washington, D.C., often feels like a reality show, distant from our lives, as slick and ratings-driven as the Super Bowl. But when political leaders succeed or fail in their agendas, the impact is absorbed by us in practical, appreciable ways.
Sports rivalries do get ugly, of course — violence can erupt, and sometimes people die as a result. Championship riots in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and yes, Boston and Pittsburgh over the last several decades are proof. All of those outbursts, tellingly, came after big wins, not losses.
But, compared to fan bases in Europe, Latin America and even Canada -- where single dominant sports like soccer or hockey create crucibles of fan fury — Americans have historically done a decent job of compartmentalizing our sports-related passions. Most of us understand that if our team loses, we may be upset, even angry, but our way of life does not depend upon the outcome of a goal line stand. Our sporting rivals are just that -- opponents, not enemies.
As Congress continues to cleave shamelessly along party lines, as our president babbles on about winning, it’s a wonder that post-game handshakes still exist in some arenas of American public life.
What if we treat our political identities more like our sports identities: integral, but not all-consuming? What if rather than taking our biases home with us, we agree to sit down together after leaving the stadium, or a town hall meeting, or a protest, and trade analyses of what we’ve just seen?
Our teams may differ, but we are all invested in the same game. Our engagement, at the very least, proves we care. Isn’t that a place to start?
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