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Taylor: Rumble in the political jungle

Tomorrow the serious news will be invading the consciousness of even the most ardent sports fans. It is, in case you hadn’t quite realized yet, the battle for the White House, Obama vs. Romney, the greatest showdown of 2012.

As rivalries go, this is the big one: Democrats vs. Republicans, America vs. real America, socialism vs. plutocracy, liberalism vs. traditionalism, reigning champion vs. pretender to the crown. It’s perhaps not something that normally breaks into the sports pages, but maybe it should be; sports and politics have a lot in common.

Take the fans. Just a few short months ago die-hard Republicans hated Romney. They saw him as the antithesis of everything they stood for, almost as bad as President Obama. Back then he wasn’t yet officially on their team, but now that he is their candidate, and that he seems to have a realistic chance of winning the big prize, that dark episode is conveniently forgotten; Romney-Ryan 2012 is suddenly the great hope that will save America. I have to admit that however much I hate Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, it would be a lot easier to forgive all of his many personality flaws if he was–inconceivably, I admit–wearing a Reading FC shirt.

Politics is supposed to be about hard facts, about serious things. Voters are supposed to weigh the policies of all candidates and thus come to a reasoned decision about which person or party better represents them, and which will most ably lead their country. Sports, meanwhile, are seen as ultimately trivial. In the face of war, famine, disease or any of the other disasters that would seem to threaten our civilization at every step, sport is nothing but entertainment. Unlike voters, fans support their teams through thick and thin, no matter how terrible their seasons or objectionable the people leading or playing for them may be.

But wait–are they really that different?

Many people vote for a party out of nothing more than family allegiance. Few, depressingly few, on either side even read the opposition’s plans, let alone those of their own party. And switching allegiance would be an unthinkable betrayal.

Instead of trying to create a real head-to-head understanding of the differences between what Obama and Romney want to, and can, achieve once in office, we force them to square off on live TV in three presidential debates. Does anything actually get debated? No. This is no more than reality TV, a chance for us to see the candidates taking cheap shots at each other, leaving the arena bloodied and bruised. Viewers don’t use the opportunity to inform themselves whom they should vote for, but merely to further underline their long-held support for one party or the other.

Winning is always far more important than how you play the game, or anything else–just ask Lance Armstrong.

Sports journalists often struggle to be truly impartial when their childhood teams are in action, but it seems many of their political counterparts have refreshingly given up any attempt at a façade of neutrality. The most memorable games in sports history are usually made all the better by a commentator’s personal bias–a love of one team or a hatred of the other–breaking through. Political commentators give this great performance every time they are on the screen, airwaves or on paper.

Is this a depressing view of the state of the once lofty ideals passed down by America’s Founding Fathers? Maybe to you, but I’m not from here; I don’t get to vote anyway. Beyond the fear of it affecting my visa status or America’s next president launching World War III, I really don’t have any political capital invested in this.

No, to me this is great. I can just sit back and enjoy the mayhem, as both sides struggle to push their teams over the line in the dying seconds of the contest, rival fans insulting and berating each other from the sidelines. There really doesn’t have to be anything athletic about a competition to suck us sports fans in; why else would ESPN cover poker? Or golf?

Unlike most of you, I’ll be watching tomorrow night’s final showdown as a truly independent fan. I don’t care who wins; I just want a good, close, fight–the dirtier the better. And with any luck, like Bush vs. Gore in 2000, this will go to overtime.

 

Tom Taylor attributes much of his apathy toward the U.S. presidential race to his first experience with the circus back in 2000 and a certain “pregnant chad” incident in Florida. For more details email him at tom.taylor@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.