Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why Sports Matter

The ending of Monday's Packers-Seahawks game has taken on many names. The Fail Mary. Golden Gate. The Inaccurate Reception. Each and every one of them carries the imagery of what is one of, if not the, single worst call in NFL history.

Occasionally, after a particularly heartbreaking loss, Bill Simmons, ESPN's Sports Guy, will mention that he really shouldn't care about sports so much. Easy for him to say. Prior to this season, I bought a $250 share of Packers stock for my dad for Christmas that, if sold (and it can only be sold back to the team), would bring a pittance. One of the first things that happened after he opened it up was that he expressed a desire to be buried with it. And the first season after its purchase is greeted with The Shield doing everything it can think of to make the resale price of that stock and its true worth as closely in line with each other as possible.

The first full day after the game was primarily spent as part of a nationwide, leaguewide support group, spanning every site that ever even thought of talking about sports, CNN International, and apparently, the You Don't Know Jack Facebook game, which announced, "Any right answer provided by a player in Wisconsin will be credited to someone in Seattle. Too soon?" I was watching, and participating in, a deadly-serious debate as to whether, on the suggestion of Packers guard T.J. Lang, the Packers should have deliberately taken a knee on every play in future games until the real referees were restored and the replacement refs sent back to Foot Locker where they belong. The debate, thankfully, was rendered moot by the deal struck Wednesday, but still, the fact that a professional sports team and their fans were seriously and openly debating whether or not to throw a game in ethical protest was a very uncomfortable position to be in.

So the incident wound up putting me in Bill's position. Why? Why do I care so much? Do sports really matter this much in the grand scheme of things?

Yes. I submit to you that they do.

I can already hear you. 'Really? Does the world really, truly need highlight reels and people making millions playing kids' games and etc.?' I respond that you are thinking too small.

For starters, let's go back to Seattle. The headline on Fark that told of the game read, "Wisconsin learns why unions are important". Wisconsin, as you may know, is governed by Republican Scott Walker, who led his administration last year by gutting the negotiating rights of unions, an action that led to an attempt at recall that, while it gave Democrats control of the state senate, failed to remove Walker himself. And here, Wisconsinites of all political affiliations were taken advantage of by non-union scab workers. The term 'replacement referee' in and of itself obscures the issue. When they're "replacement referees", you start feeling that these are people worth feeling sorry for because they're in over their head. But when you call them what they are- scabs- that evokes an entirely different image, of amoral strikebreakers trying to screw over people better suited for the job they're doing than they are, and driving down the payscale to do so.

It should come as little surprise that, when Survey USA polled residents of Washington state about the play, Republicans were more sympathetic towards the referees than Democrats. But it put Walker in an awkward position when he, the governor who made his name on breaking unions, found himself calling for the restoration of the union referees. After all, he's a Packers fan too.

Paul Ryan, also a Wisconsin resident and Packers fan who wants the real referees back, may be a different story. He took heat in August for waving a Terrible Towel, a hallmark of the Pittsburgh Steelers, at a campaign event in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. It's not the first time it's happened in a campaign, but it catches attention every time. It's a somewhat underrated way to determine a political candidate's courage in their convictions; their ability to honestly state what they truly believe in. After all, as the old saying goes, you can change your family, you can change your underwear, but you never change your team. Rick Santorum, a Steelers fan, may have been condemned for poor convictions, but earlier in the Republican primaries, he passed the same test, refusing to put on a cheesehead at a campaign stop in Wisconsin. Santorum, ironically, said in the refusal, "It's like asking a Packers fan to wave a Terrible Towel. You can't do that."

So this game does in fact matter in the larger scheme of things. But again, perhaps we are still thinking too small. Perhaps we need to get out of the narrow focus of the Packers-Seahawks game.

Let's start with the fact of the Packers' existence. Much has been made of the fact that they exist in Green Bay, Wisconsin, by far the smallest market in major North American professional sports. Much has been made of how much the city depends on the team not just as a cultural institution, but as an economy, as a way to put themselves on a level playing field with the biggest, largest cities in the country. But the same is true of any one-team town. Green Bay is simply the most dramatic example. Having a professional team in town is a way to say your city matters. It puts you on the map, even if no other aspect of your city normally would. Jacksonville, Florida enjoys such a status with the presence of the Jaguars, and Oklahoma City recently gained with the relocation of the Thunder. (As do, within the United States, Sacramento, San Antonio, Orlando, Memphis, Raleigh, Newark, and if you don't count Major League Soccer, Columbus, Portland and Salt Lake City.) Losing that one team relegates you to a lesser civic status, as Sacramento currently fears should they lose the Kings. They risk going on the scrap heap of former major-league towns such as Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; Worcester, Massachusetts; Troy, New York; Pottsville, Pennsylvania; Anderson, Indiana; Decatur, Illinois; Portsmouth, Ohio; Waterloo, Iowa; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Duluth, Minnesota.

Las Vegas, Nevada, despite its prominent status, knows deep down it will always be considered somewhat of a lesser, a place somehow outside the sports world despite being so intimately involved with it, until and unless it attracts a major-league team. You often see them among the founding cities of several startup leagues, the XFL and UFL being but two examples, as they keep hoping that one of them, eventually, will catch on.

Even among cities safely within the professional sphere, you see a battle of pride, with cities gaining prestige for every team they gain and every league they become part of, and losing it for every team departed. Los Angeles feels incomplete without an NFL team. Seattle feels incomplete without the Sonics. New York feels something of a birthright to two teams per league. Anaheim was insistent that the Angels carry their name somehow (thus, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.) A special kind of status is afforded to those cities that have managed the complete set- an NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL team. (That's New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Denver and Detroit. If you count MLS as well, drop Detroit and Miami.)

In each and every one of these cities, sports is a modern version of the ancient concept of combat by champion. My city is better than your city, and in order to prove it, we have gathered the greatest athletes we could possibly find to represent us, and we will pit them against the greatest athletes you could find to represent you in a test of athletic ability. In ancient times, that test might have been the ancient Olympics, but it might also have been a fight to the death; whether or not the disputing factions abided by the result is another issue. In modern sports, the tests are regular, scheduled, and produce peaceful results. That is to be expected in North America... but again, you think too small. New York and Boston are not about to start shooting at each other. With places like North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, and the former Yugoslavian states, that is a much less assumable thing. The idea even has an unofficial name, 'football diplomacy' (at least when it's soccer doing the job). Any time places legitimately at odds with each other can settle things on a soccer pitch or a cricket oval instead of a battlefield, I think we can all agree that's a plus.

The World Cup and Olympics, at least theoretically, run on such an idea. It's part of the glue that holds them together. The idea is, however much we hate each other, no matter how much we want to kill each other, no matter how much the world appears to be spinning out of control, the World Cup and Olympics are an occasion in which we all just put it aside, sit down, grab a beer and watch sports together for a few weeks. And if we can manage to pull it off for a couple weeks, maybe we can keep it going longer than that. Of course, it often doesn't work out that way, but it's worth continuing to try. This is part of why NBC received the scorn that it did in London, and has during virtually every Olympics they have aired: too much emphasis on American athletes to the exclusion of almost everyone else. Yes, the United States was at the top of the medal table, but that doesn't mean the other nations are simply there to be foils. They compete as well. They send their best athletes as well. The medals they get are proof that they have also produced winners.

And besides, the Olympics are not about finding winners and losers. It is about having competed. As we noted during the Games themselves, if you saw the live feeds and watched preliminary heats of whatever event, you would often see representatives of less-heralded nations with little hope of even avoiding last place in the heat, let alone medaling. They were not forgotten. Without fail, after the other athletes had completed the heat, the PA announcer would turn his attention to that last-place athlete and exhort the crowd to cheer them home. And without fail, the crowd would cheer them home. Because it's about having come to the Olympics and having done their absolute best. That's all.

Not that some nations see things quite that way. Politics routinely intervene. Iran, for example, refuses to compete against Israeli athletes in the Olympics because they do not recognize the nation's existence, and athletes will withdraw from competition should they be drawn against Israel. For other nations, nothing less than victory will do. Sports is, again, one way to gain prestige for your city or your nation, and some nations will go further than others to gain that prestige. And once on the world stage, they will place athletes under immense pressure to avoid causing the nation to lose face with a poor performance. More repressive nations go particularly far in that pursuit. China is most infamous for this in the Olympic universe, but they're not the only one. North Korean athletes who make the Olympics or World Cup are regularly threatened with being sent to the gulag should they lose. East Germany was notorious for its use of steroids on Olympic athletes, whether they made the athletes aware of it or not. Three different nations- Haiti, Chile, and Zaire- bullied their way to the 1974 World Cup on the backs of support and/or intervention by the regimes of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Desire Mobutu, respectively.

I never said anything about sports being an entirely positive influence. Just that it matters.

In Eastern European soccer, you will often find clubs with the name 'Dynamo'. Dynamo Kiev is the most prominent, but you'll also find Dynamos and Dinamos and former Dynamos in Moscow; Minsk; Riga; Zagreb; Berlin; Dresden; Bucharest; Tirana; Prague; Sofia; Baku; St. Petersburg; Tbilisi; Odessa; and many other cities littering the region, mainly in Russia and Ukraine. They were all part of the same sports society run by the local secret police, and they often would take all the best players available to them. That's the key word. Take. They were the secret police, after all. Needless to say, they tended to win a lot... much to the chagrin of the general population, who typically were not free to speak out about it in general society.

But in the environment of a sporting arena, they were free to root for Dynamo's opposition. What would commonly happen is the opponents of the regime would pick one opponent- Union Berlin to take on Dynamo Berlin, for instance; or Hadjuk Split to take on Dinamo Zagreb- and rally behind them. They would use the cover of rooting for their team to air their various grievances against the regime in a relatively safe setting.

This also occurs and has occurred outside the Iron Curtain. FC Barcelona, for example, draws some of its history from being the club that stood against Francisco Franco's favorite club, Real Madrid. In Uzbekistan, Pakhtakor is the foil to the state's choice of Bunyodkor. In Jordan, one of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables shows how the rivalry between East Bank-supported Al-Faisali and Palestinian-supported Al-Wahdat is used as a fig leaf for Al-Faisali fans to express displeasure towards Jordanian leadership, in particular the Palestinian-born Queen Rania.

In Libya, Al-Saadi Gadhafi, Moammar's son, saw the Libyan domestic league built around him to the point where only his name would be announced by the PA announcer, to where teammates were given incentives to repeatedly pass to him, and to where games were fixed in their favor. In 2000, Al-Saadi was playing for Al-Ahly Tripoli, and the league had just been fixed to ensure rival Al-Ahly Benghazi's relegation. On the final day of the season, upon a dubious call awarding a penalty kick that would send them down, Benghazi fans invaded the pitch (and forcing an abandonment), dressed a donkey in an Al-Saadi jersey in protest. For this crime, not only were fans arrested and jailed (three of which were given the death penalty, though not carried out), but Benghazi's stadium was bulldozed with the fans forced to cheer the bulldozers. The club was then banned from playing indefinitely, with 'indefinitely' turning out to mean five years.

Politics can be used to positive effect as well, though.

Within the United States, you need look no further than Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 broke baseball's color barrier and struck a high-profile blow for black civic rights, perhaps accelerating the overall rate of change. In so doing, Robinson tore down the wall set up by Cap Anson in 1883 when he drove Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey from the field, catalyzing the "gentlemen's agreement" made by the owners the same day... an agreement that didn't stop Anson from consenting to play against blacks in semipro ball in 1907 and 1908, well after his career with the Chicago Cubs had ended. Without Robinson, and without Anson, the fortunes of blacks in America would still have risen and fallen, but at what pace? Baseball's influence in those eras must surely have given weight to their words and actions. How far would blacks have fallen without Anson? How fast would they have risen without Robinson? Would they have risen fast enough to, 60 years later, allow for the election of Barack Obama?

A few years before Robinson was World War 2, which saw hundreds of players from the major and minor league ranks go to war. The government had the ability to cancel any wasteful activity during wartime, and baseball wasted potential manpower, but on the request of then-commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his support for the game, as a way to provide some sense of normality. The quality of play was admittedly going to dip, but the fact that there was baseball at all would serve as a reminder of the way of life the nation was fighting for.

Brazil also had a nation to fight for. In 1964, Brazil had been taken over in a military coup. In 1982, the military regime was still active, though waning, only at that point allowing the first multiparty elections since the coup. Enter the soccer club Corinthians in Sao Paulo, led by midfielder Socrates, team captain of the Brazilian national team that same year. Clubs at the time were commonly locked up in hotels for days before games, a symbol of the rule they lived under, and Cortinthians, for one, was quite sick of it. The elections were on May 15. The 1982 season wrapped in April. So Corinthians decided to take the field in jerseys that read on the back 'DIA 15 VOTE'- 'Vote on the 15th'- and carried banners reading 'Democracia'- 'Democracy'. The move, known as 'Corinthians Democracy', is credited as being one of the most effective get-out-the-vote campaigns of the entire election. And it worked. The elections went against the military regime, and by 1985, the regime was gone.

But perhaps a simple get-out-the-vote effort is not enough to suit you. Fair enough.

Let me tell you a story about South Korea, then.

In 1981, South Korea was also living under a military dictatorship, then led by Chun Doo-Hwan, who took over after his predecessor, Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated in 1979. Park had been a major catalyst in bringing the nation along from a largely agricultural existence to its current cosmopolitan status, and he had come up with the idea to bid for the Olympics as a further boon. He died before the bid could be submitted, which left Chen to do it on the hope that the Games would give legitimacy to his rule. He was lucky in that Seoul only had Nagoya, Japan to beat, and won the Games easily.

He was unlucky in that the people of South Korea had other ideas about what the Olympics ought to mean for their country. And their ideas included democracy. As the preparation years passed and the Games approached, student demonstrators got more and more aggressive about the matter, until things came to a head in 1987. The students knew the world was watching, and battled state police repeatedly, knowing that if Chun cracked down too hard on them, he risked having the Olympics taken away. The IOC was already questioning, in seeing Chun's continued dictatorship, whether they had made a mistake awarding Seoul the Games in the first place. When Chun named coupmate Roh Tae Woo as his successor, they were more or less convinced they had, and the students launched into massive protests. Chun, facing the united pressure of the IOC and the students, backed down enough to allow elections, which Roh won due to lack of a big-name opponent. Roh, though, had no chance to be the leader Chun wanted him to be. Instead, on June 29, 1987, he amended the national constitution to allow democracy. The first democratic elections took place that December. just in time for the Olympics nine months later.

Without the Olympics- without sports- how would that part of the world look different today? Would South Korea be a democracy? What would their economy look like- formidable anyway, or would something have happened to revert their progress? What would their relationship be with the United States? With North Korea? Would their cold war still be going on, or would the war have turned hot?

And speaking of cold wars.

During the days of the Soviet Union, they and the United States repeatedly clashed on the stage of sport, usually in the Olympics, one more proxy war in a half-century full of them. The 1972 basketball final in Munich. The Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. The 1980 American boycott of the Moscow Games, and the revenge Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games four years later. But their highest-stakes matchup did not take place on the field. It came when a field was merely found.

In 1970, an American U-2 spy plane took reconnaissance photos of Cuba. Among other things, it found a soccer pitch in the city of Cienfuegos, near a wharf and a set of barracks. Henry Kissinger took one look at the pitch and knew immediately what it meant. He showed the photos to White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and announced "Those photos could mean war, Bob. Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer."

It wasn't an entirely accurate assertion- after all, Cuba qualified for the World Cup in 1938- but Kissinger's conclusion was correct. The pitch was part of a Russian facility under construction, an effort to sneak back into Cuba after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Had the base not been spotted in time, a second Cuban Missile Crisis could easily have kicked off.

As it happened, about a week of pressure was enough to get the Soviets to cease construction. But had it not been for the simple fact that Cuba and Russia prefer different sports, would Kissinger have noticed the base's significance? Had he not, would Nixon have been able to defuse a missile crisis as Kennedy had done eight years earlier? Would we even still be sitting here right now?

There are matters we haven't even gotten into. Football as a catalyst into concussion and brain research. Sports of all stripes as a way for products of poorer families to get into college and secure their futures, be it football, soccer, basketball, boxing, track and field. Youth outreach clubs the world over that give children a peaceful outlet, such as Elman FC in Somalia, a branch of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center. Other children being tricked by unscrupulous soccer agents and trafficked to Europe, only to be stranded in an unfamiliar land when the agent abandons them.

But the next time a big game is decided on a bad call, and you ask me how a silly little game could possibly matter in the grand scheme of things, I will ask you back, how could it not?

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