For all those sour headlines about slumping ratings and player protests, the National Football League landed a dandy matchup for its marquee event. More than 110 million Americans will probably watch Sundayâ€™s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. The contest will instantly become one of the most-watched programs in American history.
On days like this, my mind fixes on â€œThe Sporting Spirit,â€ an essay written by George Orwell in 1945 that sought to reckon with the rise of our modern athletic-industrial complex.
Orwell noted that sports faded in prominence after the fall of Rome, only to surge again in the 19th century, in England and the United States, where games became â€œa heavily financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions.â€ For Orwell, the rise of sports was bound up with the rise of nationalism, both of them examples of â€œthe lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.â€
Fans are apt to bristle at this assessment, among them most recent presidents, who look to sports as a folksy way of connecting to voters.
President Barack Obama was especially fond of this jock populism. Not only did he fill out his March Madness brackets on TV, but he used his final public appearance in office to argue that sports played a major role in our nationâ€™s moral progress.
Sports â€œhas the power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,â€ he insisted, adding, â€œThereâ€™s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.â€
Mr. Obamaâ€™s earnest belief that sports â€œspeaks to something better in usâ€ is a common trope among aficionados. They extol the grace and courage of favorite players, the ecumenical bonding experience of fandom, and especially those moments when a devotion to athletic prowess overpowers prejudice.
But the current occupant of the Oval Office has given voice to a more primal, and frankly powerful, vision of sports, the same one Orwell identified seven decades ago: â€œSerious sport has nothing to do with fair play,â€ Orwell wrote. â€œIt is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in violence.â€
Anyone familiar with the presidentâ€™s Twitter feed â€” which has become both his bully pulpit and his confessional booth â€” would have a hard time disputing that his brand of politics exudes this sporting spirit.
Mr. Trump is ruled by a lust for competitive prestige, which he achieves by bragging and stoking feuds. Like no other president before him, he has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of compromise in favor of the zero-sum game. For him to win, the other side must lose.
It can be tempting to mock a leader who nurses his ego by gazing at a map of his â€œmassiveâ€ Electoral College victory. But Mr. Trump is president, in no small part, because he was able to exploit the sporting spirit within us.
From the moment he began his campaign, Mr. Trump understood that most Americans have exchanged the burdens of citizenship for the pleasures of fandom. And he intuited that politics, for all its precious norms and pretensions, was at its root a blood sport.
While his primary opponents droned on about policy, Mr. Trump dominated debates simply by trash talking. At rallies, he bragged about his poll numbers and urged partisans to pummel protesters. He mocked elitist losers and vowed to usher in an era of winning.
Establishment Republicans yelped that he needed to pivot to a gentler, more inclusive tone. But in the end nearly all of them voted for Mr. Trump. They did so because of what political scientists call â€œnegative partisanship,â€ an ingrained hatred for the other party that is often entirely divorced from ethics or policy.
Orwell would have seen in this pattern the infiltration of the sporting spirit into our political culture. The result is voters whose prevailing ethos boils down to the motto of Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders: â€œJust win, baby.â€ Even if you need to suppress votes, or gerrymander districts, or get help from Russian agents to do it.
But Americans across the political spectrum got caught up in the same spirit. Think about how much time liberals spent hate-watching Mr. Trumpâ€™s rallies, or hitting refresh on predictive models such as The Timesâ€™s Upshot meter. They, too, gobbled up stories that focused on strategy and poll numbers. Is it any wonder that the news media spent so much time focused on the scoreboard, and not the stakes?
We should all be alarmed by a postelection study, conducted by Harvardâ€™s Shorenstein Center, which revealed that just 10 percent of the 2016 election coverage focused on policy. But we should also understand that this dismal statistic redounds to us.
A year into the Trump presidency, the news media continues to treat politics as a kind of wonky offshoot of the sports entertainment industry. Coverage of major bills focuses more on whip counts and the tallying of winners and losers than the consequences of legislation.
The president, naturally, continues to exploit this tendency. He uses the news media to sow discord, to inflame warring cultural and racial factions in a manner designed to steadily erode the common good.
Should any of the Patriots or Eagles choose to kneel during the national anthem, you can be sure our tweeter in chief will post a bilious squib aimed at inciting his fans against those with the gall to protest institutional racism on Super Bowl Sunday.
President Obama lauded sports as a realm capable of â€œchanging hearts.â€ But he never quite grasped the relationship between our devotion to athletics and the cycle of escalating recrimination and intransigence in our realpolitik.
Instead, we now have a leader who grasps, all too well, the ways in which our sporting spirit can be prodded to reveal the darkest precincts of our national soul.