FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Missing the Campaign? Try the Politics of Sports.

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By Dave Zirin
Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's a long-standing lament of the political activist: "If only people devoted the time, effort and attention to politics that they apply to sports, we could change the world."

This year, we may have seen exactly that: an astonishing intensity and interest in the presidential race -- largely because of the campaign of Barack Obama -- that's matched in the cultural sphere only by our national obsession with sports. Supporters gathered in arenas, chanted themselves hoarse, obsessed online and even caravaned around the country. College football fans are more subtle.

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted this dynamic during MSNBC's election-night coverage while surveying the crowds in Chicago's Grant Park. "It's almost like the 19th century, when politics was entertainment, politics was fun, politics was sports," she said.

The often-discussed iron wall between sports and politics, breached in the past by such figures as Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King, may have been forever obliterated. What happened this year went beyond "fan intensity." Both Obama and John McCain took their case to sports radio, ESPN's SportsCenter and even the half-time show of "Monday Night Football" on the eve of the election. We watched Obama sink a three-pointer on a visit to U.S. troops in Kuwait and also learned that he didn't miss his hoops ritual on the day of the vote.

We listened to America's No. 1 hockey mom, Gov. Sarah Palin, extol her own basketball and hunting prowess. We heard Vice President-elect Joe Biden commit what political commentators described as a "gaffe" when he boasted that the Delaware Blue Hens could top Ohio State's football team.

But sports infusion has not been the work of presidential aspirants alone. We have also seen cable shows structured far more like NFL pregame shows than political talk shows. The new star pollster of this election cycle, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, comes from the world of baseball statisticians.

The political season even made its way into that most aggressively non-political space: the pro locker room. An unprecedented number of athletes, from NBA demigod LeBron James to Phillies MVP Jimmy Rollins to veteran Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, rallied for the candidates. Former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson was even elected mayor of Sacramento, with Shaquille O'Neal campaigning for him.

So where is all that steam, not just from fans but from politically engaged athletes as well, going to go now? Will it dissipate or find a home in another piston?

A lot of it could certainly be funneled back into sports. Fantasy teams, sports radio and tailgating haven't gone anywhere, and even after last week's political earthquake, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL continue unabated. The online sports world, with its chat rooms, bloggers and endless stream of contests and drama, is uniquely positioned to reabsorb the political junkie.

There are also certainly some who dream, starry-eyed, that the people who flooded Obama rallies will stay engaged in the political process with that same overheated campaign fervor.

But if we don't magically become a nation of wonks, here's another alternative. What if the newly politically energized citizen who also happens to be a sports fan takes a greater interest in the politics of sport? What if athletes take on political issues in their communities, using their hyper-exalted, Nike-sponsored platforms to say something meaningful about the world?

It's more realistic than you might think. In a tough economic period, sports fans are likely to be far less willing to tolerate publicly funded stadiums while schools, roads and libraries crumble. They may turn their backs on high-ticket prices as disposable income dries up. Fans could demand that professional sports radically restructure economically if they want to survive.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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