Sunday Morning Lights What Bad Football Officiating can Teach Us about Politics

By a show of hands, how many of you were looking away during the last play?

By a show of hands, how many of you were looking away during the last play?

Something horrible happened on Sunday. I won’t distress you with the details, so let me just summarize it this way: in the final seconds of a divisional game between my beloved and upliftingly named New England Patriots against the disgraceful New York Jets, the officiating crew called a penalty which effectively gave the game to the Jets. The infraction hinged on a new and never-previously enforced rule. The rule is poorly-written and penalized disproportionately, which means that even under ideal circumstances its enforcement would feel unfair. But what’s worse, it seems that the penalty didn’t even apply here! Did I mention that it came in the final seconds of a sudden-death game and effectively handed victory to the lowly Jets? Disgraceful!

So imagine my distress when I went online and discovered that, judging from the comments on ESPN’s article, the national audience didn’t necessarily agree with my interpretation. Not only did some people think the penalty was fairly enforced, some were even suggesting that NE fans were sore losers for being this upset. I’m sorry, but when you sign up to care about the outcome of a game, you can’t very well be expected not to care if that outcome is decided unfairly. What are these people thinking?

What’s more, some people were bringing up the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff between the heroic Patriots and the distasteful Oakland Raiders. That game has been nicknamed ‘The Tuck Rule Game’ for a late call that hinged on a little-known rule that was later changed. As a result of that call, what appeared to be a game-ending fumble was reversed, the Patriots’ drive was kept alive, and New England went on to win its first Superbowl. It was awesome! It was also entirely proper – the rule might not have felt fair, but it was clearly the rule. And there’s also no doubt that it was accurately enforced. In other words, that was nothing like Sunday’s flawed officiating.

I was halfway towards explaining that to someone on a message board after the game when it dawned on me: how we look at football is a pretty good analogue for how most of us look at politics. Usually, the comparison that is made between sports and politics focuses on the cheerleading Americans engage in: everyone has a team and everyone wants their team to win.

In sports, that makes sense because the whole point of athletic competition is that it’s arbitrary. The rules are arbitrary and the allegiances are arbitrary – sports is about competition itself, so everything else is taken for granted. Politics, of course, is supposed to be substantive. And it is – very little changes in the world depending on who wins the Superbowl, but a whole lot might look fairly different depending on who gets elected to Congress. Even so, a lot of Americans simply have their political team and root for it, and often that allegiance grows out of little more than who your family and neighbors support.

By a show of hands, who here knows they disagree with the other guy before I’ve asked the question?

By a show of hands, who here knows they disagree with the other guy before I’ve asked the question?

As someone with a background in social science, that observation isn’t very earth-shattering. Humans are social creatures. We form groups and defend the boundaries of those groups against threats. We do that instinctively. For a sociologist, you might as well bemoan that there aren’t more hours in a day, that people find salt and sugar delicious, or that the New York Yankees are made of money. It doesn’t mean that people can’t change the way they look at their groups, or the way they look at politics – it just means that those changes have to happen in a certain way. No biggie.

But here’s what I found revelatory (and feel free to judge me as naive for it having taken me this long). Forget about whether or not Jets fans were happy that the game went their way – how in the world could they not see that the call was ridiculous? And how could the Oakland fans not see that the 2001 call was the right call? Or to play Devil’s Advocate, why do I persist in believing the 2001 call was the right one while Sunday’s call was one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a major league sport?

The reason is that when allegiances are arbitrary, they’re also largely unmovable. When controversy arises, that leaves you with two choices: (1) maintain your allegiance out of loyalty while recognizing that your position is flawed, or (2) conclude that your position is correct and then proceed to discover why. That was the part of Sunday’s fiasco that so thoroughly reminded me of our national politics: everyone is watching the same game, but half of us are reaching wildly different judgements about what’s happening on the field.

Now, some of you might object that this comparison is unfair: you know exactly why you support your political party and it’s hardly arbitrary. Besides, you’ve changed your political allegiance before. Fair enough – but even if over the long run Americans are more flexible about politics than they are about sports, when it comes to the random assortment of political conflict that makes up the news cycle, most Americans seem to have little to go on other than what side their team is on.

Take a look at feelings about the use of drones, executive orders, or even what people think about the President going on vacation. Democrats fumed over George W. Bush cutting brush at his Crawford ranch, as if he were President before the invention of phone lines. Now, the right has whole websites dedicated to the President’s time on the golf course.

But if you really want to see how political analysis aspires to the objectivity demonstrated by sports fans, then get up a little earlier on Sundays. Before the muscled contests on the gridiron, you can tune in to the bespectacled battles of Sunday morning talk shows. I find it equal parts amusing and dispiriting – ask a Democrat what she thinks of a Republican proposal (or vice versa) and you already know she won’t like it; the only unknown is how creative her argument will be.

You might as well ask me if Ted Williams was the best hitter that ever played the game. (Of course he was.)

Seriously: this man hit .406 in 1941 and was one of only two players to twice win the Triple Crown.

Seriously: this man hit .406 in 1941 and was one of only two players to twice win the Triple Crown.

There’s a final similarity between viewing sports and living politics. The Patriots lost Sunday’s game and they’d be the first to tell you that. The truth is that they were awful on third down, and with an injury-depleted defense, they couldn’t put a stop on against the Jets when it mattered most. Even if that awful call hadn’t been made, the Patriots might have still lost the game. As a Patriots fan, I can admit that. What I can’t do is believe that the Jets won that game: they had their victory handed to them. The outcome was clear, but it wasn’t legitimate.

Now let me ask you, does that attitude remind you of anything?

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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