Beware of Political Footballs

The Term
I’m not what you would call a “sports guy.” I have teams that I watch on occasion, but unless it’s a championship or playoff hockey I won’t turn it on myself,  I’ve never watched ESPN willingly, and I’d be a horrible person to have on your team for trivia. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write about the moral outrage brewing in the United States after Donald Trump spat off at the mouth like a burst pipe in a humid environment.

He has the remarkable capacity to enrage his enemies and embolden his supporters while sounding like some idiot at the bar you accidentally overhear, choose to ignore, but grumble into your whiskey ginger about (or is that just me?). Moving on, the stage was set, and like good fanatics – everyone knew what side they were going to root for come Sunday afternoon. I’ve written and talked about President Trump’s Twitter and what I think he is accomplishing intentional or otherwise, I would like to expound upon that idea within this article by talking about political footballs and why we should be wary of playing with them.

Of course, we’re not talking about a physical football (American or otherwise), but a metaphorical one. I would define a political football as any policy or cultural issue that politicians irrespective of party use to rally their base into action (see: donations). The gravity of the underlying issue notwithstanding, it is my contention that for the politician “playing” with political footballs enable them to win – not by solving the issue mind you, but by ensuring their reelection.

The Politicians & The People
Like sports, politicians separate themselves into teams we know them today as Republicans and Democrats. Like sports people root for a team, we dress up in their colors and root them on from the stands watching as they engage in the process. There are rules of course that must be followed in sport, and both teams have to abide by them in order to fulfill their most important duty – entertaining the spectators and making sure they come back next week as it were.

In sports there is an objective winner, but in politics there can be no winner overall merely points scored one way or another. For the purpose of this metaphor to “end the game(s)” would be to fix what is broken – but the point of a political football is to keep playing with it. It also might be helpful to think of each issue as being a football that might be used by all the players at once or in break off games that occur simultaneously.

Playing in a professional spectator sport is only half the equation so to speak, in order for it to be successful you have to draw a crowd. The crowds are the one whom allow for it to be professional, and they certainly make it all the more exciting. Their investment in a team, in a sport, or in a player is what the participants count on for their continued survival. A team with a good following can fill up a stadium even if the fans know they’ll lose, and certainly we can say that politicians are able – undeserved though it may be – to create this loyalty in their constituents.

The diehard sports fan will dedicate himself or herself wholly to their chosen team; memorabilia will adorn their walls, jerseys will adorn their bodies, face paint will be worn on game day, and tattoos will adorn their skin. This is all done to show their support of a team, it is an emotional investment and oftentimes one that is intergenerational and therefore has deep roots. When it comes to sports, other than shelling out the dough for licensed merchandise and tickets no real harm is done. In the case of politicians and their political footballs however, they utilize the earnest emotional investment people have in what they believe to be right to serve themselves.

Case in Point
Take the travel ban for instance (see my take then), this was one of Trump’s campaign promises and one of the first things he ordered as President. It gave his team the support from those who thought it justified, and the other team because they thought it unjustified. At the heart is a real issue – whether and how the government should take in refugees or allow immigration and travel from “countries of concern”. The ban was originally proposed on January 27, 2017 and was to be enacted for 90 days. This was the kick off that the other team waited for with righteous fervor, Trump’s opponents immediately sprung into action attempting to block the executive order through the courts, as well as countless media spots condemning him for his actions. Emails were sent requesting donations, and the people responded with a gusto. Keep in mind, what I’m driving at here has nothing to do with the justness of a travel ban, merely what politicians do with a serious issue.

If the first travel ban had been put in place and not challenged it would have expired on April 27, 2017 perhaps the Trump administration would have tried to extend it, perhaps they wouldn’t have. What cannot be disputed is that both teams used this issue to serve their own ends, drive a wedge between their team’s supporters and the other, while continuing to bomb people in the countries we’re worried about refugees coming from (without direct congressional approval I might add).

When Colin Kaepernick (my first comments here) first decided to take a knee rather than stand for the national anthem you would think he bombed a hospital, threw a concussion grenade in a crib, or shot your family’s furry friend. His action sparked conversation and ire from sea to shining sea, and in a perfect intersection with real sports politicians wasted no time picking up their political football and playing the game that should be all the more familiar. At the federal level, no serious work as been done in ending the drug war which incarcerates people for nonviolent offenses, arms and enriches the gangs and cartels, and gives the police an easy way to steal your property by escalating a routine traffic stop.

Whether he is a hero or villain to you does not matter, everyone has formed an opinion on the matter, and even my initial reticence has not stopped me from writing about it because like it or not, this matters to the majority of Americans. This iteration of the game came to a head this past Friday when Trump was pumping up the crowd at a campaign rally in Alabama. Commenting on the matter he said “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” This was delivered to predictable cheers, as Trump held the political football and spiked it in a grandiose display on what would be the metaphorical 1 yard line. There was no reason for him to say something so tactless except to perform for his crowd, and wedge the already divided population further apart. The lead up to Sunday saw multiple players, coaches, and owners releasing statements on his comments, and the NFL games saw players locking arms in solidarity or not coming out for the National Anthem at all.

Dig Deeper
The supposed disrespect shown by Kaepernick and others is because by not standing for the anthem you disrespect the flag, what it stands for, and who died for it. I could write another 1300 words on that topic alone, but I best leave it for another time. The end of our national anthem echoes in the ears of every American as I write the words “o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” I dare to say, if people are not free in the United States, and if we are not brave enough to engage in a real discourse that allows us to wallow in complexity and search for nuance, then the flag stands for nothing worth being upset over. Plenty of nations have forced their people to stand for an anthem or bow to a King.

The idea of America was supposed to be that the individual was sovereign over himself and that no man – not even the President could tell him otherwise. Instead, most are too happy to run after the political football the politicians hold for us like Lucy at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately like Charlie Brown if you chase after them, you’ll end up flat on your back looking a fool with nothing to show for your devotion.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, if you have any comments let me know below or reach out @BrianThorntonJr.

Questions, comments, gripes or complaints?