Laslo Boyd: The Diversion of Sports

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In a world where so much of the news is bad and so much of politics is a mix of divisive and irrelevant, finding a distraction can be very appealing.  Even if you believe that sports is too dominated by money and receives a level of attention from the public that should be focused instead on issues of substance and policy, it’s still tempting to escape from time to time to an alternate reality where the outcomes are clear and unequivocal and the level of skill is astonishing.

Take this past weekend as a prime example.  We had the incredible sadness of Beau Biden’s funeral and the ridiculous spectacle of Republican presidential candidates riding motorcycles and cavorting with hogs in Iowa.  Violence and destruction continued to characterize the Middle East while fighting in the Ukraine intensified. 

In Baltimore, the deadly violence of May continued without anyone having formulated a clear way forward.  Armed police encounters with unarmed African Americans, some in bathing suits, were also in the news.

Meanwhile, there were three sporting events that captured the attention of millions of people.  All three drew worldwide audiences and are vivid reminders that, whatever your views on “American exceptionalism”, we are not alone on the planet.

In Berlin, two football teams from Europe played for that continent’s Champions Trophy.  Okay, we may think they were playing soccer, but the rest of the world knows better.  It is the most popular sport in the world despite the fact that most Americans are still having trouble getting excited by the game.

That’s a little hard to understand.  The level of skill and the intensity of the matches are a wonder to behold.  How do you “catch” a ball with your foot and pass it to a teammate in a single fluid motion?  How do you kick the ball over a group of defenders and curve it into the small unguarded corner of the net?

 Barcelona of Spain beat Juventus of Italy 3-1 in a match that was closer than expected but not quite as close as that score.  Barcelona has a superstar frontline led by Lionel Mesi that reminds you of the New York Yankees of Babe Ruth’s era.   Their performance was as good as any team sport ever gets.

For Americans who pay attention only during the World Cup, and then often not for long, there’s the opportunity to watch the Women’s World Cup now in progress.  If you like soccer, it’s a good way to take your mind off the unfolding corruption scandal that is engulfing FIFA, the sport’s governing body. 

Another great distraction last weekend was the French Tennis Open, an international sport in which Americans have been missing from the top tier on the men’s side since the retirement of Pete Sampras.  Among the women, however, Serena Williams continues to demonstrate that she is among the best ever to have played the game.  Her victory in the French Open was her 20th Grand Slam triumph.

The men’s game seems to be undergoing another one of those transitions in which we have to learn a new set of names.  After years of seeing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dominate the sport, they are no longer at the top of the tennis standings.  Even with Americans missing from the late rounds, the skill of these international stars is something we can all appreciate even if our personal tennis matches bear no resemblance to theirs.

And then there was American Paroah.  In another sport that gets attention from most people only for its premier events, a lot of non-racing fans thrilled to see the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.   The challenge for horse racing is to figure out how to generate some of that excitement and attention the rest of the year.

Recently, there has been some speculation that the Preakness, the Baltimore-based middle leg of the Triple Crown, might be moved to a different location.

One of the challenges to making improvements at Pimlico, which are widely seen as needed, is that less than half a million dollars has been allocated for capital improvements there from the Racing Commission from funds generated by the State’s casinos in support to thoroughbred racing in Maryland.

Of course, after those entertaining diversions end, we do have to get back to the reality of everyday life.  Actually, for our political system, the real dilemma may be that so many people prefer to stay focused on those sporting diversions, even the local ones such as the Orioles, the Nationals, or their own recreational efforts.

We have a serious disengagement in this country from voting and other forms of political involvement.  The fault is not really with international soccer or the Triple Crown but rather, as Pogo put it so succinctly years ago, with us.  For many, the favorite sport is complaining about government and politics, but not being part of the solution.

The oversized role of money in politics is part of the problem.  Citizens United has to be one of the most disgraceful and misguided Supreme Court decisions ever handed down.  The growing inequity of income and wealth in this country is both a cause and an effect of the political disengagement.

But, at the end of the day, those complaints are merely excuses.  Turnout of less than 20% in Primary Elections is an abdication of responsibility among the 80%.  We may enjoy the diversion of attending or watching sporting events, but politics, if democracy is to be preserved, needs to be a participatory undertaking.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.