Sunday, along with millions of other Americans, I watched a football game where the big story was how old the 40-something quarterbacks were and how soon they would be retiring. Because they’re old. 40-something. At the end of the game, these two ancient men who could be my children hugged each other and showed mutual respect, even though one had won, and the other had lost. Their teams regarded one another on the field with mutual respect. Competitors showed kindness to one another. Even though some of them were winners and some of them were losers. That’s sportsmanship. Having a winner and a loser is the expected outcome of the game, a contest based on a mutually agreed upon set of rules, public rules with referees that make the call. Because someone has to make the call to keep the game moving. Referees enforce the rules and sportsmanship is the code of ethics that holds the system together.
Now I can’t help but look at recent political events through the lens of sports, and ask myself, what happened to sportsmanship? All those angry people storming the capitol — some of them, probably many of them, had to be football fans. Or basketball fans. Or baseball fans. Or soccer fans. Or hockey fans. Team sports are supposed to condition us for civility, collaboration, integration into a system greater than our individual selves, a shared set of rules that apply to all of us, the experience of a group effort, unity, recognition of the fleeting high of winning and the common bond of loss. Team sports are supposed to strengthen society by harmonizing our tribalism.
Sunday’s game was played in an empty stadium, the sad result of pandemic lockdown. Maybe that’s one reason our collective mood tilts toward anger. We have the very real feeling that we are losing something. Our bond to one another is weakening without the physical connection of crowds. Stadium sports gave us a way to experience our tribalism peacefully on a massive scale, a potentially dangerous situation made safe by the common code of ethics that holds the system together. Sportsmanship makes us safe.
So, it seems incongruous to me that an army of probable sports fans could invade our nation’s capital and perpetrate violence under the banner of white supremacy. One of the main constructs of sports is that supremacy is temporary. That’s why we have championships. And how on earth do the white supremacists plan to implement their racial cleansing without disrupting professional sports? Do they plan to re-segregate the NFL? The NBA? MLB? Are white supremacists seriously demanding that their sports teams be all white people? That Black athletes return to the Negro leagues? Really? Goodbye Super Bowl. Goodbye World Series. Goodbye March Madness. Goodbye Tiger, and Venus, and LeBron. What genius thought this through? What are the economics of white supremacy? Because I’m pretty sure it’s a money loser for professional sports. In fact, white supremacy is unsportsmanlike conduct, a red flag violation of the common code of ethics that holds our whole world together.