Opinion | What Can Sports Teach Us?

Good morning, and welcome to the first issue of my newsletter (you are reading the web version), a place where I hope to discuss the obsessions, ideas and thought processes that have shaped and guided my career.

If you subscribe to my podcast, “The Argument,” you know that I spend a lot of my time working to understand what, how and why other people think the way they do about the biggest issues of our time — from housing to critical race theory to the death penalty. A lot of that work is possible because of how I think, and because of the reading and watching that has shaped me over the past decade.

In this newsletter, I want to cover the events that may seem small or unrelated to our biggest concerns but that undergird how we think, talk and vote.

How does popular culture — or more important, our perception of popular culture — move public opinion? Why are some of the fiercest online debates not about politics, but about … whether fruit is good for you?

How has the history of alcohol and Prohibition affected the War on Drugs? How does Israel teach the Holocaust, and is there something we could learn from that to teach about slavery and Jim Crow here in the United States?

For me, much of my thought process begins with sports — so I plan to cover the subject a lot. I was not an athletic child, but I was an athletic-minded one. I love the context of sports — the how, the why and the how much that goes into various sports, and how they do (or don’t) work.

And sports matter, even if you don’t identify as a sports fan. Sports give us small, silly conduits for how a society thinks about what it values the most and what it values the least.

If sports don’t matter to you, they probably matter to your neighbor, your kids or the person your favored political candidate wants to reach. And if you follow “horse race politics,” or care about your political team winning (or, perhaps more accurately, your political opponents losing), you may be talking about nonsports in a very sports-like way.

I started my professional writing career covering college football and the N.F.L. Football was my first writing love, the subject of my most florid (and only slightly concerning) prose.

As you may have noticed, I’m not alone in my passion for this sport. Football, specifically college football, is not just a pastime or a business. It is a culture unto itself.

The sport (or, more accurately, being competitive in the sport) requires millions of dollars in investment in order to create billions of dollars in profit, vanishingly little of which goes to the athletes who play football and endure its damages. College football coaches are the highest paid state employees in many states, and the machinations of university athletic departments can alter the political tides both within their home states and nationally.

A little tale from this summer illustrates these points.

Back in August, Roger Marshall, a Republican senator from Kansas asked the Department of Justice to investigate the country’s largest sports television network to determine its involvement in the decision by two major universities to change athletic conferences.

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senator argued that ESPN may have played a part in getting Texas and Oklahoma to change conferences, asking “that the D.O.J. investigate ESPN’s role in the potential destruction of the Big XII Conference and if any anti-competitive or illegal behavior occurred relating to manipulating the conference change or ESPN’s contractual television rights.”

Since 1996, the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma have been the flagship members of the Big 12 conference, which also includes schools like Texas Tech and, yes, the University of Kansas. Earlier in the summer, Texas and Oklahoma announced that they would like to leave the Big 12 conference and join the Southeastern Conference (S.E.C.), which includes athletic powerhouses like Alabama and Florida.

At the end of July, members of the S.E.C. voted unanimously to extend invitations to both Texas and Oklahoma, and both schools will join the S.E.C. in 2025. The result will be a 16-team “super-conference.”

Conference realignment in college sports is nothing new. Big schools bolting conferences to make more money is a time-honored football tradition, like overestimating Notre Dame. In the grand scheme of things, this move may seem unimportant, and perhaps should not be a priority for a U.S. senator.

I am sure that Marshall is aware that the Department of Justice has absolutely no interest in investigating ESPN. And he must be aware that a massive change in the sport of college football is insignificant to the lived experiences of his constituents (in comparison to Covid or climate change, for example).

But he is also aware that Texas and Oklahoma leaving the conference they helped to steer will dramatically alter the Big 12 conference. He is also aware that the swirl of conference realignment will alter how, where and when the sport of football (and, to be clear, every other college sport) is played.

I would not be shocked to learn that Marshall has received hundreds of calls and emails from voters asking him to do something, anything, to prevent this from happening.

For millions of Americans, from Syracuse, N.Y., to Berkley, Calif., and everywhere in between, college football is a tether to camaraderie and shared experiences of joy and pain.

If Michigan wins a national championship in college football this season (it will not) the material difference in my life would be infinitesimal. I would not get paid more or be better at my job. And yet I would be so emotionally buoyed by a Michigan national championship in football that sometimes I dare to imagine it, just for a second, just for a hint of that feeling.

College football will not make me spiritually fulfilled or morally superior. But it can, and does, make me happy. And I’ve met people from across the country and around the world — people in Singapore and Australia who wake up at 2 a.m. to watch a game taking place 14 hours away — who feel very much the same, and find changes to the game as it’s played now life altering.

This is the culture of college football, of the behemoth made from a game played every fall by college students who were born while I was in high school.

It doesn’t really matter. It’s not really important. But it means so very, very much.

Percolating thoughts

Here I plan to offer up some ideas on my mind, even if I haven’t formed an argument or reached a definite conclusion just yet.

I have been contemplating how audiences can “capture” a politician, a pundit or a political party: Subcultures that are relatively small in size often seem to have outsized power. The results can be incredibly positive for society; majority rule can, and must, have limits. But this dynamic can lead to serious problems.

Take the ivermectin “debate,” such as it exists. Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug, has likely saved thousands of lives in the fight against diseases like river blindness. But as of now, there is no evidence that ivermectin is useful against Covid-19, and plenty of evidence that it is not nearly as effective as existing vaccines.

But many people would very much like it to be. And these people, en masse, are incredibly influential as an audience, which is leading a number of well-known figures (largely on the right) to advocate for the use of the drug in place of the vaccine. Follow that with shoddy reporting, and you have yourself a tempest in a dumb teacup.

In today’s world, “audiences” have power — or they are perceived to have power. In the ivermectin story, politicians, public figures and some media outlets have been captured by this subgroup of anti-vaxxers. It’s not a healthy dynamic.

This deference to — or fear of — an audience can lead people to make inane arguments, in which they have little to no stake, that may hurt us all. These arguments aren’t intended to further public knowledge. Instead, they are just a fan service.

If you have thoughts on football, the power of audiences, or anything else, please send me a note at [email protected]

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