Thursday, February 11, 2010

Football, Politics, and Haiti

Peyton Manning
Originally uploaded by Leyinglo
The Super Bowl was a satisfying, even heart-warming, experience, both in terms of the well-played game and the remarkable New Orleans story. The themes of redemption and renewal were moving and I willingly suspended my usual cynicism that kicks in when athletes give glory to God for helping them win a game.

I figure that if we don't blame God for 200,000 bodies buried in Haitian rubble (and I don't), then God should get no credit for a team of Saints winning a football game. It was one of those feel-good things that thankfully defies explanation.

That being said, there was another level of nonsense surrounding the game that connects to a cultural phenomenon that I think is unfortunate and potentially dangerous.

It is illustrated by a piece about the Super Bowl written by Jason Whitlock, the Kansas City Star's sports columnist viz. cultural provocateur. He is analyzing the performance of Peyton Manning, quarterback of the losing Indianapolis Colts, and widely considered one of the best players ever to play the game. Whitlock writes thusly:
Down a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, 5 yards from a first down and 31 yards short of a tie score, Manning tossed his Ruthian legacy into the arms of Tracy Porter, throwing the interception that decided the game and, in all likelihood, cemented Manning’s reputation as a big-game disappointment.
I have neither credentials nor interest in judging Manning's career. But I do want to register an objection to this silliness that takes one moment, one errant pass, one interception and makes that the linchpin that defines a career. (For the record, in his twelve year career Manning has completed 4232 passes for 50,128 yards, 366 touchdowns, and 181 interceptions.) And ONE pass, ONE interception "cements" his reputation as a "big-game disappointment?'" Give me a break!

But my real issue here isn't about football, except to the extent that sports are often guilty of this kind of hyperbole. The games are marketed with hype and exaggeration and overstatement.

In the end, however, it's only a game. But when the same issue begins to appear in the larger culture there may be reason for concern.

Take for example the election of conservative Republican Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. I certainly acknowledge that Brown's victory was significant and that it signaled some shifting in national politics since the 2008 presidential campaign. What got to me, however, was the inability of the media to restrain themselves from making this single off-year election one of the defining moments of our generation. One blogger reporting on that race referred to the "cacophony of cataclysmic change that is coming from Left, Right, and Center."

The "cacophony" is precisely the problem. A vast number of journalists, pundits, bloggers, and water cooler commentators, many working to fill the 24/7 news cycle of cable television and the Internet, create a cultural phenomenon before any kind of thoughtful reflection can occur. In Brown's case the hype created a larger than life figure descending into Washington, DC with cameras recording every step and talking heads breathlessly reporting on what he had for lunch as he made his way like a conquering hero to receptions around the Capitol.

Just today I heard of some polling that makes the point even while sending chills down my back. Respondents were asked to rank their favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. No candidate had a margin of any consequence, but Mitt Romney and his multi-million dollar political makeover was in first place. In second, embodying the notion that we get what we deserve, is Sarah Palin, another media creation who manages to present herself as a populist even while charging $100,000 for one speech to her own supporters. You gotta admire audacity like that.

And in third place as a GOP candidate for leader of the free world? Yes indeed, that honor belongs to Senator Scott Brown whose own mother probably didn't know who he was two months ago. But here he is, not far removed from a nude layout in Cosmo (think a female candidate would have got away with that one?), suddenly anointed as America's savior du jour. Well, at least it can be said of the Senator that he has nothing to hide.

These days we allow the media to create heroes, define cultural movements, and tell us when some event has vast importance. We have actors declared to be stars upon getting one small movie role and a DUI. We have teenage singers writing their memoirs. We have unknown politicians who become household names because of some rude or thoughtless remark.

The plea here is for some sense of proportionality that honors achievement over time and provides for thoughtful reflection and intelligent dialogue.

We have a culture of celebrity that creates and hypes personalities made of straw. While not wanting to exemplify the kind of overstatement I am criticizing, I really believe this is a danger to our civilization and way of life.

It is not unlike the construction standards in Haiti. Buildings were not anchored as one would see in the developed world; they virtually sat on the surface of the land with no foundation of any depth.

And then the earthquake came.