Monday, October 25, 2010

The Politics of Sports: Jimmie Johnson Edition

My graduate advisor went to prep school with Jeb Bush and then went on to graduate from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. But the two of us probably talked about college football more over the years than my dissertation. During one such conversation I revealed that I had, squirreled away in a dresser in my parents' house, a pristine Bernie Bar - a chocolate bar bearing Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar's likeness and endorsement. I had owned said candy bar since relatives in Cleveland had sent it to me in the mid-1980s. I hadn't even removed it from the plastic shopping bag they had sent it in, let alone ever dreamed of unwrapping and consuming it, for fear that doing so would dishonor the man or even risk him bodily harm through product-endorsement voodoo. I'm sure the chocolate sucked anyway. My advisor, a huge fan of University of Miami football, at which his father had taught music and Bernie had starred, straightened up upon my report of owning such a lost idol of past football greatness. He offered to buy it off me. I'm sure if I'd named a dollar amount he would have whipped out his checkbook right then and there.

But of course you understand that the Bernie Bar is not for sale.

As the nation approaches the midterm elections and the zenith of the "Tea Party Movement," I raise this story in frustration with a common narrative, raised over and over again in recent months, that the "elite" is out of touch with "real America" for reasons like the sports we watch. In keeping with the general editorial gestalt of the Washington Post's opinion page, Charles Murray offered up boring and patronizing rendition of this refrain on Sunday, taking the assumption that elites don't know who Jimmy Johnson (the NASCAR driver, not the coach/Survivor contestant) is as a sign of their undemocratic out-of-touchness. This is a somewhat ironic argument for someone with a degree from Harvard who wrote a book claiming a biological connection to intelligence to make - and whose recent output as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, bastion of common-manhood, was a column about golf.

Characterturing the tastes of the nation's best and brightest has been en vogue at least since Joe McCarthy made fun of Dean Achenson's wardrobe. It's a tired act, but one that clearly has some juice in it. That said, it's time to retire the sports part of the act.

For starters, NASCAR has carefully courted its fan base of "real" Americans for generations because it is an upstart operation. Its promoters knew it couldn't just break into big media markets and compete with football or baseball. Its success has depended on its ability to work around the ways other major sports have developed fan bases through geographic and media advantages. The biggest race of its season takes place in the sports dead zone of February. Its biggest stars are marketed and promoted as local guys to fans far removed from ever getting to see their favorite team sport franchises in person. We may live in a nationalized media marketplace, which allows the kid from Alabama or Indiana or even New Jersey to grow up rooting for the Cowboys -- but that doesn't mean sports fans don't still yearn for the proximate. Hence, the popularity of high school and college football far away from NFL franchises and of NASCAR in flyover America.

Conservatives who want to exploit the high/low divide, furthermore, treat NASCAR fandom as some kind of exclusive lifestyle choice. People who care about one sport usually care about more than one, and being a NASCAR fan does not come at the exclusion of other sports that are popular on the coasts. 
College football is a perfect example of the interplay between high and low status or culture in the nation rather than its division. The rise of college football as an obsession in the South happened in response to Elite America's dominance of the sport in the first half of the 20th century. Catching up to the Harvards and Yales was a motivating force, and the success of that motivation still shapes the competitive landscape today.

Finally, let's just all agree that it's stupid to think that all the "elite," who number a few hundred thousand people in Murray's definition anyway, care about niche activities and not major team sports like the rest of the country. It's just not true. They might not care about NASCAR, but that's because NASCAR isn't chasing their dollar -- the NFL and Major League Baseball already has that locked up. Also, because car races are boring until someone crashes. The rabid Red Sox fan made so by a stint in Cambridge is practically a cliche among the sports-loving intelligentsia. And it's not even just a guy thing any more -- the Red Sox and Phillies lead sales of pink hats. So, in the interest of truth and national unity, let's just stop using sports in the "elites are out of touch" narrative.      

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