The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elite athletes know better than anyone how to win. They can also show us how to lose.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes shakes hands with Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson after a Texans win in 2019. (Colin E. Braley/AP)

Athletes have a level-headedness in the face of conflict. Rarely if ever do they attack an opponent viciously off the field once the contest is over, no matter how bitter the loss. Their ability to be all-in and yet to slow from an emotional run to a walk when the clock runs out is an example worth studying after this spiteful political season. Something to be proud of, even.

Politics is not a game, but it is a competition. And sports is not an airlock. It has never been, no matter how much the audience complains when politics invades the playing field. Contentious affairs intrude, for the simple reason that ballplayers aren’t inanimate X’s and O’s. LeBron James’s very bones and skin are necessarily a matter of political power struggle because he is a Black man who wishes to better his condition. Same with Megan Rapinoe if she wants equal pay and to marry her chosen one. Sideline neutrality was not an option for them, any more than it was for Arthur Ashe, who had to leave segregated Richmond as a teenager to play tennis in the 1950s, or Martina Navratilova, who had to travel with FBI protection after she defected from Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia in 1975. “People are politics,” she has pointed out.

Athlete activists have a long, rich tradition of political engagement, and the best of them show us how to do it with equal parts conviction and restraint. “You make sure that your facts are right and that you haven’t fallen short personally,” Ashe once said. “Armed with that, you take your stand.”

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Athletes performed that role admirably in this brutal, sour, rocks-through-windows political season. From James and Rapinoe to Patrick Mahomes and Stephen Curry, from the WNBA to Jack Nicklaus and Brett Favre, they tried like hell to win, but they channeled their angriest convictions with a discipline and a positivity that rebuked the political professionals.

Everything they did, they did with the unmistakably athletic perspective that an opponent is not an enemy: You try to outperform the other team; you don’t try to maim them. You keep your intensity between the lines — do that, and you won’t need to board up whole towns for fear of what might happen when the Chicago Bears lose to the Green Bay Packers. And you tolerate difference within for the good of the whole. Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera defended the Affordable Care Act, and his defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, was a Trump supporter, yet they managed to coexist as colleagues and win games together while expressing their views frankly.

That’s because sports breeds a core sense of interdependence and commonality: Every athlete in the NBA and NFL or on a golf tour shares a stake in the success and prosperity of the broader enterprise. Factions in American politics could do worse than to remember that. On a pre-election podcast with Democratic adviser Joe Trippi, Republican consultant Mike Murphy bemoaned the “acid throwing” by candidates and mused wistfully about an era when campaigns didn’t seek universal destruction. “It was football, and you fought hard on the field,” Murphy remarked. “But you didn’t burn down the stadium.”

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Athletes of all sorts put their backs and their souls into nothing but good works in recent months, launching so many energetic voter registration drives and public information campaigns that simple good citizenship acquired a patina of heroism again. They seemed like an army of marching antidotes to the street fire setters, statue desecraters and bellowing, maskless rallygoers.

Others did quieter work. Newly retired Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw raised over 147,000 pounds of food for poor schoolkids who lost their lunches with class shutdowns in the coronavirus pandemic. Peyton Manning endowed scholarships at half a dozen historically Black colleges. Mahomes helped pay the cost of opening Arrowhead Stadium for voting.

More than anything, athletes over the past few months served as examples of equanimity. They coped with viral shutdowns, civil unrest in their cities, electoral uncertainty and public criticism for their shows of conscience. Yet they managed to play on — and to win and lose gracefully.

There can be near life-or-death implications to political changes, especially for the most vulnerable, which make disappointment in that sphere of a different magnitude than a losing football score. Still, when athletes enter the arena as opponents, they know the endeavor necessitates one of them losing, a quantitative judgment of their life’s work. There’s something resonant about that ability to engage wholeheartedly in a contest that affects life and fortune and then concede that the result is the result and must be accepted peaceably.

In every game, there is a moment of suspended judgment, when a potentially game-winning play unfolds, a ball flies through the air, hands are outstretched, the clock ticks, the audience holds its breath, the referee prepares to make a ruling. This happens occasionally in American politics. It happens every single day in sports. It’s a breathtakingly instructive thing to watch — and to admire.

Great athletes don’t like to lose — but they know what to do with it, better than the rest of us. It’s the nature of every athlete’s existence to pour themselves into an effort with the knowledge that almost invariably they will be thwarted. Every team but one finishes a season as a loser. The good ones don’t complain about breaks — or the referee. They accept it, look inward, study themselves and try to come back better.

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