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Politics and Sports

Andrew C. Thomas

Sports and politics shouldn’t be intermingled. Though no two topics are more fervently discussed among men, they are both critically important to the survival of nations.

So it’s no surprise that in the past month, since before the start of Gulf War II, there has been a strong incursion of politics into the air surrounding sports, notably those games which cross the U.S.-Canada border. On March 22, the hockey analyst and former Boston Bruins coach Don “Grapes” Cherry had a heated debate with co-host Ron Maclean when Cherry, seen by many Canadians as a folk hero, a thoughtless loudmouth, or both, passionately chastised the Canadian government for their lack of support for America, while being egged on by Maclean, who respects Canada’s democratic right to have their own opinion. Cherry’s statement was perfectly consistent with hockey’s ethical mentality -- when your teammate and friend is in trouble, you stick up for him right or wrong, at least in spirit.

This discussion arose from an incident the previous Thursday. Fans in Montreal booed the Star-Spangled Banner as it was being played, triggering the booing of O Canada in American rinks. While the rude behavior did not last long, more trouble is on the horizon. Bud Selig, commissioner of major league baseball, decreed that during the seventh inning stretch of all home opening games, God Bless America would be sung. That’s all home openers -- including last night’s game in Toronto, between the Blue Jays and (ironically) the New York Yankees.

This is a time when every American action in the name of patriotism provokes a strong northern response, and this situation is no different. It continues a trend of American action that is wholly insensitive to Canadian feelings. Of course, I would hardly accuse Bud Selig of treating Canadian baseball fans worse than he does for American counterparts -- he’s not particularly good with either -- but the situation is still troublesome. Paul Godfrey, the president of the Blue Jays organization, stated on a Toronto sports radio station that they were in a no-win situation. That situation is the typical “you’re with us or against us” attitude that has underrun every major American foreign policy initiative in the last year and a half.

It’s not like this phenomenon is limited to American sport. Politics pervade sporting events the world over on a regular basis. Nothing in recent memory is nearly as bad as the Soccer War, a brief conflict in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador that killed roughly 3,000 people. The war broke out over a World Cup qualifying match, taking place during an already heated international dispute. The mistreatment of Salvadoran fans by Honduras destroyed the enjoyment and meaning of the event, and led to the game and its circumstances being used for political means as a point of contention between the countries.

But team sports are inherently political. Two groups each establish a following and a strategy, and both promise big things if they are victorious in the next contest. But people follow sports for relaxation. People watch acts of incredible skill, and then fantasize about being able to hit baseballs out of the park, or making a jump shot from half court, or firing a slapshot into an open net. Gambling on sports is equally important to our society, even if the wager is no greater than your self-esteem, if it gives us some satisfying feeling of control.

The existence of this apparent political structure makes it tempting to impose other values onto the game itself. Baseball, long billed as “America’s Pastime,” saw corruption from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and President George W. Bush in October of 2001. Baseball’s power to help heal a hurt nation did not need to be restated by politicians -- its magic was already well-known to the country. The game is enjoyed for its own sake -- attempts to impose a new structure can only harm the game.

Don Cherry’s speech, which superimposed the values of hockey onto the Canadian political climate, surely demonstrates that sports have a special place in the hearts and minds of many people. However, it also represents an innate danger; that we might forget the ideals we stand for in our love of sports, and think of them more as a forum to espouse political beliefs. Let us keep our debates alive, but separate. With all the turmoil in the world, and even on this continent alone, we need sports for sports’ sake.