One of the uncool things about this week is that, some hundreds of miles away from the gleaming monument to Texan grandiosity that is AT&T Stadium, a city of millions will remain largely flooded, with thousands — if not tens or hundreds of thousands — of people displaced from their homes, possibly for good.
If you can think about the former without thinking about the latter, more power to you, I suppose. But I can’t. I’ve never been able to treat sports as a pure distraction.
The enduring myth about sports as a distraction from the world, as a distraction from politics or war or strife or famine or disease, is at best a cop-out. It is a refusal to recognize that everything in the world is political, that every second you spend paying attention to panem et circenses — here’s hoping you didn’t miss that incredibly subtle aspect of the universe of The Hunger Games, which was also literally inspired by tales of the Vietnam War and footage of the Iraq War — is a second you don’t spend worrying about making rent or working to make it, or organizing to help or hurt others.
And, beyond that truth about everything being political, the history of sports in Western civilization is one that dovetails with politics, whether in a run to deliver the news of victory or the revival of the Olympic Games requiring 19th-century crowdfunding or a failed Senate candidate using his successful oversight of an Olympiad as a launchpad to national politics. It is folly to claim that some halycon days existed when sports didn’t have the blood of politics running through them; it is more accurate to say that many people have long been able to ignore or downplay the politics of sport because of the blinders bestowed by privilege.
Why is Florida playing Michigan in Texas, a thousand or more miles from either school’s campus? Well, that’s because there’s gold in that thar game, in the form of millions in payments to each school’s athletic department that help fund both the football programs that use underpaid labor and the federally-mandated women’s programs — programs that exist partly because the sums of money the football programs make would be too gauche not to spend on something else. It’s because one of the most valuable cable networks in the world still values live sports broadcasts highly, thanks to those broadcasts routinely delivering the most coveted demographics for advertisers. It’s because Jerry Jones likes the prestige of having his colosseum used by as many different gladiators as possible, and the money that they spend. It’s because both programs have decided that eschewing a guaranteed (or close) win over a less-advantaged program school is worth all the possible benefits of playing in this game.
It is, to be blunt, the sum of thousands of political decisions by all involved, from athletic director down to long snapper.
But I don’t want to belabor that point, and I don’t want to ignore the value of bread and circuses. Civic pride is, I think, psychologically valuable; it was, in fact, fun and necessary to smile at and revel in Florida teams’ successes over the course of the last academic year, as the sum of millions of other political decisions sent our nation on a trajectory that has troubled many. Watching the Gators win as much as they did was fun as hell, even if the distractions were only ever temporary at best, and even if the greatest triumph was laden with memories of a politically fraught time.
When the attacks of September 11th shook the nation, or when Hurricane Katrina ransacked the Gulf Coast, the sporting events held in their wake gave those who attended and paid attention to them a lifeline back from the shoals of fear and uncertainty to the shores of normalcy.
There is hope in the stories of sports, and power in how they bind us together as communities. There is danger in them, too, of course, but the joy of achievement is potent, the love of teammate and teamwork restorative. We can learn so many lessons from sports — and we can control whether those are the right or wrong lessons, whether they teach us about supremacy or glory or privilege or passion or collectivism.
This weekend, in Dallas, hundreds of miles from thousands of people who cannot spare a moment to think about sports, Florida will play a game.
And I hope you enjoy it. I hope I do, too. But I also hope you take at least a moment to think about those people — and, perhaps, help them, now or later — and to think about more than just the game on the field.