How Television Reminds Us That Politics Are Not Sports

You are forgiven if it is impossible to see the United States of America as anything but a mass of hot-blooded rage. After all, the ongoing Republican National Convention and next week's Democratic offering are the current exports of derision and division that were supposed to gather commonality among wide swaths of Americans. As what has been normalized in the two-party system (third party voters, this is for you), we are rooting for laundry just as much as Jerry Seinfeld once quipped about sports, except that picking red or blue in this case has much more riding on it.

On what would normally be a lazy time in mid-July, these events are a tandem in the real-time competition for your eyeballs, your beating hearts, your likely made-up mind, your primal id and your allegiance to some version of America. The conventions may have been part of the country's democratic process since the Union began, but they are essentially television events that news divisions of media companies would consider their conference championships en route to the league final called Election Day on November 8th.

In a little over thirteen weeks from this writing, whomever wins the majority of our fear-induced votes will make the conciliatory call for unity with their sisters and brothers across the aisle for ONE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! before likely spending the next four years being antagonized by them for merely existing. After over a year (or more accurately, the entirety of Barack Obama's second term) of campaigning, the battle will be over, handshakes and daps are to be exchanged, post-game analyses must be conducted to explain how the winners won and the losers lost, and we are supposed to go to bed and prepare for the next game an evening or two later.

So yes, the messaging from our candidates and overdone inspection of every word spoken falls into the equally overused cliches about how politics are just like sports. However, there is something far more sinister at play that makes the attempted simile as smooth as Rudy Giuliani running a bodega in Harlem.

A funny thing about that came last night in the TSFJ e-offices that reminded me of how "brands" compete on TV right now. Thirteen days ago, your friend and fellow senior editor Phillip Barnett told you about the emotions spilled because of recent events that reddened every skin tone which colors this very platform we love, events that should be front and center at these party conventions. It was pretty hard to talk about our sporting obsessions when we were angry, even harder to go about the ridiculously fun banter we exchange from coast-to-coast. But last night as some of us checked into Slack, Barnett asked a simple question:


While it went unanswered because we were getting jokes off about other matters, it was a fair question at a time where the athletic world has fewer large-scale showcases until all eyes turn to Rio de Janeiro for the certain disaster of next month's Summer Olympics. As a long-time observer of the WWE, last night's highly anticipated Draft emphasized one word, competition, ad nauseam. Though unable to watch the selections live, one-by-one, performers talked about the competition between the shows; Monday Night RAW, which has served as the company's flagship program since 1993, and the latest reincarnation of the 17-year-old "blue brand", Smackdown Live.

Yes, for a "fake" sport, there lives not just a whole lot of real physical and emotional pain, but a real, publicly-traded company that has been compelled to reinvent itself over the years. WWE's second 'brand extension' (the first since 2002) is a result of a long-needed infusion of youth, its unyielding size in the pro wrestling/sports entertainment industry and the upending of the TV business in the dawn of streaming. Every person from the iconic John Cena to the immensely talented Charlotte and Sasha Banks to the "undrafted" Heath Slater are quite open to understanding their place in this new reality.

In some ways, it's not dissimilar to what we've seen from the major sports leagues, most especially how the modern athlete recognizes her or his contributions to a league's television revenue (hello, NBA and NFL). It was only fitting that the draftees wore branded shirts for both shows – red for RAW, blue for Smackdown – as if WWE and the USA Network hoisted a mirror up to the modern democratic process; if you don't wear my colors, Lord help you because you're going down!

Now imagine this in contrast to the bizarro world of the second night of the RNC or even the inanity of Monday night in Cleveland being played out as RAW aired from Providence. Believe it or not, the kayfabe world of carefully choreographed moves and soap opera-like discussions reflected a far greater grasp of what televised competition is than the people who are supposed to battle for our attention for real issues.

As written in this space in the past, we should be thankful that political and athletic competition couldn't be more different, despite what the overcrowded panels at CNN keep trying to tell you. The greatest mistake that political junkies make is believing that the only way we can consume and enjoy our democratic process is through the us-versus-them prism that has to be made sexy for television or online streaming. What makes a televised sports event an overwhelming force is not just the passion and obsession from the entrenched die-hards, but the fight between opponents that enthralls the neutral observers. From watching beloved teams turn heel before our very eyes to being ringside to witness a boxing crowd sway in favor of a defeated, but unbowed fighter, how everyone in the middle can get caught up in the brilliance of athletes challenging pre-established storylines is what keeps people coming back without feeling as if need to end relationships with friends and family afterwards.

I think back to what Mark Trible, an always friend of TSFJ, said for us almost three years ago after Election Night in his home state of Virginia. He observed the differences in how we debate about sports versus how we debate, or rather, attack each other about politics.

You could tell me 100 times out of 99 that Tom Brady is better than Peyton Manning. My personal preference doesn’t allow me to believe that. I’ve lived through both careers and watched them play countless times. But, you have validity to an argument that brings the topic to the table. Even if your evaluation differs from mine, it’s within reason to think Brady is better. It’s not necessarily true. We don’t know what’s necessarily true.

Who is better isn’t the point. The simple and stark contrast between the political crazies and the diehard sports fans is. Even if I adamantly disagree with the Brady lover, at no point will I attack his or her belief systems. Agreement isn’t something that needs to be a sure thing — but respect does. I won’t call Brady names or his follower even worse names. There’s nothing I can do to change my opponent’s mind at some point, so I must agree to disagree. This valuable and intangible thing – discretion as some might call it – is rarely at use in political conversation. No reason to eliminate a person’s humanity over a party choice exists.

We are starved for real, entertaining and enthralling competition that we can walk away from without our rooting interests serving as condemnation of our personal beliefs, upbringings and demographics. Yes, sports are not devoid of the horrors of being different, but those very sports that have reminded us of how messed up modern politics truly are. So the next time your favorite political strategist or public intellectual reaches into the bag of cliches to talk about how our election process is just like the playoffs, remind them that at at least in sports, everyone who cares knows the rules to how the games are to be played in the spirit of fair and proper competition. The issues that we are voting on come this November shouldn't be glibly compared to a closer's fastball, an Olympic medley relay or even a belly-to-back suplex.

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