For me, it would be a very tedious job to be a sports announcer, especially for the sport of football. After all, there are only so many ways to describe the spectacular catch, the bone-crunching tackle, without repeating oneself. But the biggest problem I see is that the announcer must fill an awful lot of “dead-time,” time when there is no action on the field, or anyplace else. Indeed, the average NFL football game has only 11 minutes of action, snap to whistle. It is one of the things that makes the game the quintessentially American sport: brief periods of intense action separated by planning meetings, a mode of life familiar to every office drone in his cubicle. With so little actual action to talk about, football commentators have a difficult job.
But this is only one of the ways in which the game reflects American life in the 21st century.
This is a game of specialists. Indeed, each team is really two teams that play a different game, and have very little to do with each other. And each position is its own specialty, and it is not easy to switch from one position to another; they even call for different body types. A safety would not feel very safe trying to play a tackle’s position and a linebacker would not be much use as a running back.
All of these specialties lead to a game that is highly managerial. Indeed, there are more managers and coaches by far than there are players, and this is true even if you limit the count to staff devoted directly to the game and the players.
The game is highly legalistic, with a rule book that runs 97 pages; those who would master the game must be both player and lawyer.
The game is extremely violent, and players endanger their health, physical and mental, on every play. And this violence is enabled by technology. This technology is often advertised as “protecting” the players, but the opposite is true: without the complex and highly developed body armor, it would be impossible to hit another human being as hard as they do; the damage would be as great to the hitter as to the hittee. Other contact sports, such as Rugby, have more action but less violence because they are played without armor.
The most peculiarly American feature is that the NFL, like most capitalist corporations, is a highly developed form of socialism. The financially stronger teams subsidize the weaker ones through revenue-sharing of the broadcast income, as well sharing 40% of the gate receipts, and other ways as well. The labor market is strictly controlled through the draft, free-agency rules, and the salary-cap. A strict leveling is enforced to ensure competitive parity. Income redistribution is the foundation of the system.
And as with any good crony capitalist enterprise, they receive heavy subsidies from local, state, and the national governments.
In exchange for this extensive government support, the league engages in faux patriotism which sheds crocodile tears for Pat Tillman but does not require that commitment to the common good which is the basis of true patriotism.
But as surely as art imitates life, sooner or later life will come to imitate art. And nowhere is this truer than in our political life. It is now treated as a sport, and increasingly as a blood sport. The problem of the political pundit is the same as the problem of the football commentator: trying to fill all the dead time between the brief moments of real action. And in the 24/7 news cycle, this problem becomes acute.
You would think that with the proliferation of non-stop news, we would actually get more news. But the opposite is the case: we get the same bits of news over and over again, an orgy of instant replay that never seems to end. Think of this: when is the last time you heard any serious commentary on government from any of our commentators? Where was the analysis of the tax plans of the Republican candidates, and any examination of whether they would really work? Who has asked whether a “free” university education for all is either possible or desirable? Who has asked the candidates who want to replace Obamacare, “with what, exactly, will you replace it?”
Instead of substantive commentary on the art of governing, we get endless commentary on the game of politics. Who sweated most on the stage? Who has the best ground-game in South Carolina? What is the delegate strategy for this candidate? Has the candidate been knocked off-message? Etc. All of these questions are less substantive than questions like whether a team should make more use of the shotgun formation or clock management after the two-minute warning. With all the time in the world, they have no time to supply real commentary on the world.
We are in full civilizational collapse, and the only solutions proposed are to mount more spectacles at the Coliseum, spectacles which have become our politics. The candidates, most of them, do occasionally make noises about our real problems. They will for example pay lip service to “family values,” while doubling down on systems that grind the family into dust, disburse communities, destroy localities, and undermine the traditions and customs that hold societies together. But they know that they will never be called out on such things. Rather, the commentary will be about how “family values” plays in Peoria, and whether the opposition can counter with an equally vapid platitude.
No candidate has so intuitively grasped this reality of American politics, as has Donald Trump. He knows that he needs no “white papers” because no one will read them, and least of all the people paid to do so. Rather, he only needs to feed the pundits vapid matter for their vapid punditry. He only needs to reflect the collective Id of our declining nation, an Id made more monstrous by the sensation of collapse, a sensation that has been grasped by the majority of the people long before it will be grasped by the punditry. The pundits are isolated; they live in a bubble, but outside that bubble, people face real, if only vaguely intuited, fears. The very vagueness of Trump’s platform perfectly mirrors the vagueness of the general fear. He addresses our general sense of loss in the most general way, lest he finds himself trapped by saying something substantive.
Substance will get you nowhere in the blood sport of politics. Rather, you must give the pundits what they crave, like an addict craves his “fix.” This too, The Donald has grasped, and his twitter-feed feeds their need. His “gaffes” are not flaws of his campaign; they are features. They suck the air-time that might be devoted to other candidates; they even suck out the air-time that might be devoted to his last gaffe. He has mastered social media, and in doing so has mastered the pundits, and us as well.
No one, I think, has grasped the real meaning of this new age of social media than has Pope Francis. In Laudato Si’, he states,
[W]hen media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature…. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.
It takes real intelligence, I think, and even real wit to be a sports commentator. It requires at least of knowledge of the sport. But no such knowledge, or intelligence, or wit is required from political commentators, and especially not a knowledge of government. This is not to say that there are no commentators with knowledge, intelligence, and wit, but these things are not necessary; the job can be done by someone with the IQ of a houseplant, and frequently is. In such circumstances, we are not likely to recover the true wisdom of “learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.” And those that do will be marginalized. They will certainly be unelectable. In the meantime, our politics will more and more resemble our sports, as a game we generally watch but never actually play.