Sports Talk and Civic Discourse

Image by Gabriel Held

Sports and politics have a lot in common.  Both involve players and coaches, teams and fans.  Both are easily influenced by money, but aren’t supposed to be.  Both pretend to appeal to the higher ethics of fair play, but, in reality, are mainly concerned with winning.  Both are governed by formal rules, which are easy to break and hard to get caught breaking.  And when one does get caught breaking the rules, in either politics or sports, the result is likely to be a slap on the wrist, rather than any serious consequences.  Very few players, in sports or in politics, are dishonored forever.  Peter Rose and Richard Nixon come to mind as rare exceptions (as do O.J.  Simpson and Oliver North).  But even they have made numerous comeback attempts.

Everyone knows that American politics has increasingly come to resemble sports.  We are constantly reminded, for instance, that electoral campaigns are treated like horse races by the news media, rather than analyzed for their substance.  All that seems to matter is who’s ahead in the polls, and what the candidates are actually saying about the issues, or what their records reveal about their character and competency, take a back seat.  As a result, we know as much about what Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus thinks about healthcare reform or education as we do about the views of the major political candidates.

Similarly, the national conventions of the major political parties have become little more than elaborate half-time shows, presented between the primary battles and the general election.  Much like half-time shows, these conventions are bland, banal, inoffensive, and not even minimally entertaining.  Not even serious politics junkies can watch the damned things anymore, at least without feeling a sense of disgust and deep self-loathing.

But even as politics have come to resemble sports, sports are starting to look a lot more like politics.  For instance, owners of sports franchises now play one city against another in search of new stadiums and lucrative tax concessions, much as politics bosses once played neighborhoods and wards off one another, promising contracts and jobs in exchange for votes and graft.

Money also has come to have as large a role in sports as it does in politics, almost guaranteeing that only large market teams win championships, while small market teams, like small political parties, are consistently shut out.

Player agents like David Falk now exercise as much influence over sports, intriguing and manipulating behind the scenes, as shadowy underworld figures like Arnold Rothstein—the man who fixed the 1919 World Series—once exerted over both politics and sports.

And the comments of sports figures like Al Campanis, Marge Schott, John Rocker, and, most recently, Bill Romanowski, now receive the kind of scrutiny once reserved for political leaders.  The world of sports, once a secure refuge for racists and sexists, is finally lurching toward the kind of political correctness that has long been considered normal in the world of politics, outside of the Pat Buchanan wing of the troubled Reform Party, that is.  As Sports Illustrated columnist Steve Rushin points out, “our biggest, most product-mongering athletes have become blander than Gary Bauer.  Tiger Woods—allied with Wheaties, Buick, Nike—doesn’t dare offend anyone who eats, drives, or wears shoes.”

But while most Americans, it seems, have all but given up on politics, many Americans still get pretty riled up about sports.  And, perhaps more importantly, their knowledge of sports appears to far exceed their knowledge of politics, government, and current affairs.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on sports talk radio stations like WFAN-AM in New York, the nation’s first 24-hour all-sports radio station.  Since the debut of WFAN in 1987, this format has been widely copied.  Most large cities in the United States now have their own version of WFAN, with millions of daily listeners, far outnumbering those who read a daily newspaper.

Sports talk radio serves as a kind of neighborhood bar for entire metropolitan areas, where everyone has something to say and everyone’s opinion counts pretty much equally.  The main difference between the neighborhood bar and sports talk radio is the role of the host.  Most serve as reasonable facilitators (like Tony Paige and Ian Eagle), or as charmingly opinionated advocates (like Steve Somers and Suzyn Waldman).

However, all too often it is the bluster and bravado of the hosts themselves that stifles reasonable (and reasoned) discourse.  Former WFAN host and WWOR-TV sportscaster Russ Salzberg was famous for his outrageous verbal abuse of callers.  He also enjoyed hanging up on callers abruptly, adding insult to injury with a dramatic toilet flush production effect.  WFAN’s Mike Francesca, meanwhile, has been called a “bull” and “blowhard” by media critics like Village Voice sportswriter Paul Lucas, who also has criticized Francesca’s “impatient, control-freak arrogance and hostile overreaction to even the slightest opinion contrary to his own.”

But, even Francesca has his moments.  Recently when a caller commented angrily about an errant call made by a baseball umpire, and then confessed that he hadn’t actually seen the play (or any replay), Francesca scolded him mildly, saying, “It would really help the level of discourse, here, if you had seen the play.”

If Brooklynite Walt Whitman, America’s leading poet and prophet of democracy, were alive today, he’d probably spend a lot of time listening to sports talk radio, which—at its best—is about as democratic as conversation goes.

Whitman himself liked to talk about baseball.  “I see great things in baseball,” Whitman observed.  “It’s our game—the American game.  It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, given them a larger physical stoicism, tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set, repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

But Whitman might have had a hard time explaining that to Mike Francesca or his long-time partner Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, the afternoon hosts of WFAN, who are themselves as nervous and dyspeptic as they come.

Mike: Walt from Brooklyn, you’re on the line.

Walt: Hey guys.  First time, long time.

Mike: Welcome aboard.

Mad Dog: How ya doin’, Walt.

Walt: I’d like to talk about the Dodgers…

Mad Dog: Nobody cares about the Dodgers, Walt.  They’re at the bottom of their division, for God’s sake.

Mike: Terrible.  They’re just terrible.

Walt: Well, their offense is sublime, and I think that with a little more pitching…

Mike: Everybody needs pitching.

Mad Dog: My God, the Dodgers are going nowhere.  What are you wasting our time for?

Mike: Terrible.  Absolutely terrible…

Mad Dog: Bruce from Bayside, you’re on with Mike and Chris…

Even Noam Chomsky, normally a harsh critic of the jingoistic and atavistic side of sports, has praised sports talk radio for its egalitarianism and its relatively high level of discourse.

Chomsky observes, “People call in and have long and intricate conversations with a high degree of thought and analysis.  They know all sorts of complicated details and have far-reaching discussions about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on.  They don’t defer to sports experts; they have their own opinions and speak with confidence.  These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge.”

Chomsky is surely correct.  Discussions on sports talk radio do seem to take place on a sophisticated level, with hosts and callers alike invoking statistics, historical examples, and strategic considerations to support their arguments.  At times, these discussions can be considerably more revealing and insightful than what one usually hears on political talk radio, or even on NPR or PBS.  And these discussions also are extremely egalitarian.  The insights and observations of sports talk radio are for the most part generated by, and enjoyed by, ordinary citizens, not experts or elites.

Chomsky goes on to suggest that if the masses gave as much careful thought to politics as they do sports, we’d all be better off.  Chomsky explains, “It seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could conceivably be used under a different system of governance, one that included popular participation in important decision-making areas, in areas that really matter to human life.”

Is sports talk radio really the last and best hope for democracy? Could it serve as an incubator for democratic civic discourse? These are strange questions to ask in a society where citizens are more likely to know who’s batting cleanup for the New York Yankees (Bernie Williams) and what he’s hitting (.309 at press time), than they are the name of their congressperson (Dick something-or-other) and how he voted on the latest campaign finance reform bill (absent due to a  prior out-of-state fundraising obligation).

Nonetheless, a recent Arbitron study revealed that a whopping 55 percent of those who prefer to listen to sports talk radio tune in either to news talk or all-news formats as their second choice.  In contrast, people who prefer to listen to music formats tend to choose another music format as their second choice.  For example, R&B listeners also like gospel, while adult contemporary listeners also like Top 40 and regular classic rock listeners also like oldies.

This survey suggests that a majority of regular sports radio listeners also have significant pre-existing interest in politics and current affairs.  If these listeners could be persuaded to apply to politics the discursive and critical skills that they regularly use while talking about sports, both the culture and the politics of democracy might be significantly enriched.  Vinny from Queens, you’re on the line…

Contributor

Jason Scorza

Jason Scorza, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, is probably too old to be hanging out at clubs in Hoboken.

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