Saturday, January 18, 2014

When Politics and Football Come Together

Forty seven years ago, the Packers and Chiefs played in the first Super Bowl.  And now, the Super Bowl has reached the point where it is watched by roughly 110 million Americans, far more than any other event.   In this country, the National Football League is king.

The Super Bowl audience is composed of folks who watch for the commercials, for the halftime extravaganza, or simply because they’re attending a party.  And of course, when this year’s game is played on February 2nd, there will be plenty of real football fans in the audience.   But tomorrow, when the conference championship games are played, that’s the biggest treat for the football fan, because we’ll get to watch four excellent teams duke it out for the right to play in the Super Bowl.   And we football fans will be the only ones watching.  As a result, the announcers will be tailoring their telecasts just for us, which means that they will be mixing in plenty of football jargon and challenging our knowledge of the sport.  For football fanatics like me, the conference championship games are must see TV.

Personally, I think the crown jewel is usually the National Football Conference championship game.  For some reason, it tends to be played between two ultra-hard-hitting teams, often in inclement weather.  The venues include Chicago, Green Bay, New York, Philadelphia -- and back when I was a kid, the “coolest” venue of them all, Bloomington, Minnesota.   This year, the NFC Championship game will be played by two teams known primarily for their defense, unlike the AFC Championship game, which is being billed as a battle of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Defensive struggles tend to be hard-hitting and low-scoring affairs, which are commonly decided by a single play.  The team that moves on to play in the Super Bowl emerges essentially as the survivor of a war, rather than as the more skilled set of athletes.  

The NFC Championship has come to mean more to me than a mere football game.  It also represents an important part of my outlook on American politics.  Every four years, you see, we elect a President from a slate of two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican.  Predictions are made as to who will win based on all sorts of factors – domestic policy achievements, foreign policy achievements, domestic policy views, foreign policy views, etc.  But at the risk of sounding simplistic, when I am asked to predict a winner, I will typically begin with the same response:  Think about which of the two candidates Americans would rather listen to as the analyst for an NFC Championship game, and that will be your winner.  It is a test that works virtually every time.
Just think about the Presidents who have been elected during the last half-century, which almost perfectly coincides with the Super Bowl era.

1964 – LBJ, the foul-mouthed, regular guy from football crazy Texas defeats the uber-serious Barry Goldwater.  The only problem with having LBJ in the booth is that the damned FCC would censor so much of his colorful language.

1968 and 1972 – Richard Milhous Nixon defeats Hubert Horatio Humphrey and then George McGovern.   You can say what you want about Nixon’s paranoia, but he came alive when the subject was football.  Not only did he play JV football in high school, but as President, Nixon actually made recommendations to the coach of the Redskins as to which plays the Skins should use.  As for HHH, NFC Championship Games aren’t for “Happy Warriors.”   And they’re certainly not for bleeding hearts like McGovern, who comes across more as a minister than a football analyst.

1976 – Carter beats Ford.  Now this is the one and only exception to the rule.   Ford was an All American football player, whereas President Carter is best known for his “malaise” speech.  Then again, when you attain the White House because you were nominated by a guy who was essentially kicked out of office, I’m not sure Ford had much of a fair chance.  Besides, as LBJ once said about Ford, “He’s a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”  By the time he ran for office, nobody wanted to hear Ford in the broadcast booth any more than they’d want to hear from Carter.

1980 and 1984 – Ronald Reagan demolishes Carter and then Mondale.  Of course he did.   Reagan was a professional sports announcer for the Chicago Cubs – and apparently, that was more of a credential than being the Governor of California.

1988 – George H.W. Bush beats Michael Dukakis – So in Bush I, we have another guy from football crazy Texas who in fact seems to love all sports.  And he ran against someone who looks like he would like to write an essay denouncing football for being inappropriately violent and unworthy of the intellectual capacities of the human being.   

1992 and 1996 – Bill Clinton defeats George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole.   Once again, those weren’t fair fights.  Just as Democrats couldn’t help but be charmed by Ronald Reagan in the broadcast booth, Republicans would surely feel the same way about Clinton.  The guys knows sports cold, loves the human id, and can talk with the best of them.  

2000 and 2004 – George W. Bush defeats Gore and Kerry.    Remember that when he ran for President, Gore spoke like a robot.  No football fan wants to listen to a robot “color” commentator (which is another word for an analyst).  As for Kerry, the only sport that rich boy  was associated with was wind surfing.   That’s the opposite of football.  By contrast, W – another Texan – owned a baseball team.  And believe me, this guy is a football fan, too.  Did I say he was from Texas?

2008 and 2012 – Barack Obama defeats John McCain and Mitt Romney.   The McCain who ran in 2008 was the crotchety “get off my lawn” McCain, not the dynamo who almost beat W in 2000.  And Romney?  He ran as the CFO of Andromeda, Inc. (named after that Galaxy where the corporation is centered).   Obama, by contrast, once said that when he leaves office, he wants to be an ESPN sports anchor.

I’m telling you, my friends, as long as one of the candidates isn’t a hand-picked successor of a disgraced, virtually-impeached President, the NFC Championship test works every time.  And my guess is, it will work in 2016 as well, which is why Hillary is vulnerable.

That test also explains why I had been thinking prior to the last few weeks that Chris Christie would make such a formidable candidate.  I’ve neither read nor heard anything about his interest in sports, but I can just intuit that he is a huge (no pun intended) football fan who would be really comfortable in the broadcast booth.  But that’s not enough, is it?   Plenty of articulate guys love football.  That doesn’t mean they’d all make effective analysts.  Once the fans start to doubt whether your “straight talk” is really straight, we don’t want that guy in the booth calling a game.   Objectivity and fair-mindedness come before anything else.  If you can’t trust your football analyst, you’d rather listen to dead air.  

Seriously, football fans, who didn’t trust John Madden when he used to do the NFC Championship games?  And who doesn’t trust Troy Aikman, who will doing the game tomorrow.

I’ve the 49ers in an upset.   Enjoy the telecast.


Steve said...

"And he ran against someone who looks like he would like to write an essay denouncing football for being inappropriately violent and unworthy of the intellectual capacities of the human being."

Daniel, isn't that the kind of blogpost YOU should be writing instead of ones that glorify football? I get it that you've grown up loving the sport, but does there not come a time to put away childish (or, in this case, brutish) things that demonstrably destroy bodies, brains, lives, and families, and arguably corrupt society with crass commercialism and bloodlust?

I ask this as someone who spent his first fifty years in the San Francisco Bay Area and still lives close by in Sacramento, where "Niner fever" boils, and who, even now and even in the wake of recently watching the devastating "League of Denial," can't totally suppress his desire to see the 49'ers triumph Sunday and return to the Super Bowl, but who also thinks there's virtue in trying to turn away from the raucous, bloody depravity of the Colosseum instead of extolling its supposed virtues.

Having said all of that, your thesis that links successful presidential candidates to their suitability as football analysts is an intriguing one. But couldn't we substitute baseball or some other, less barbaric sport for football and obtain the same result?

Daniel Spiro said...


I make no attempt to defend football on intellectual grounds. I enjoy the sport, and that's why I watch it. And I enjoy it a whole lot more than tennis, golf, baseball or basketball.

Is there virtue in giving up football? If you choose to do it, that's fine. I've given up eating meat, which I look at as a vice, but I don't preach that to others (aside from my children, of course).

We all need our redeemable vices. The goal is not to have so many of them.

Steve said...

Daniel, I respect your giving up meat. Philosophically, I can't justify eating meat either, but I still do eat it even if I do eat significantly less of it than I used to. But then I also don't extol the virtues or joys of eating meat.

To tell you the truth, I'll probably watch some of the game tomorrow, and, if it's not the rout it was the last two times the Niners played in Seattle, I may watch all of it.

So, I guess this makes me quite the hypocrite. But my intention after this season concludes is to stop watching football altogether, and I would love to see enough other people do it too that football at all levels dies the unceremonious death I think it richly deserves.

Daniel Spiro said...

I have to admit that after having the NFL Sunday Ticket for about 16 years, I canceled my subscription this year. But I still flew out to LA to see the Rose Bowl, and I still love the game. I think I always will.

Steve said...

I wonder what Spinoza would think of American football.

Daniel Spiro said...

Likely, if Spinoza were first exposed to American football as an adult, he wouldn't approve of it. But this is also a guy who played with insects in a way that Spinoza-the-philosopher probably shouldn't have approved.

We are human beings who need to find ways to nurture our ids. We can pretend that we don't have ids, or that we can only manifest them in thoroughly wholesome ways, but we would be kidding ourselves. Spinoza-the-philosopher probably didn't go far enough in recognizing that fact.