February 5, 2008

The back-to-back power of the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday provides an opportunity to reflect on why sports matter so much in American culture — perhaps in every culture. The reasons, I suspect, exist on two levels, one on the surface of society, and another much deeper.

On the surface, sports provide physical spectacle, a form of entertainment, a diversion from the more pressing issues of the day. Athletes can become celebrities, and their heroism can embody our hopes and dreams, as part of a national community (“USA! USA!”), a school or a neighborhood.

On a deeper level, sports becomes a metaphor, a competition, however violent, that substitutes for actual war and allows us to experience vicariously the virtues that we value, from triumph over adversity, to loyalty for friends and allies, to tragic loss that haunts even the winner.

Why was I overjoyed Sunday when the New York Giants defeated the imperial New England Patriots? Here’s why: Because tribal loyalties direct me to identify with New York over any teams from the Boston area; because Eli Manning came across as the infant champion defeating the dark and brooding forces of darkness, incarnate in the figure of Bill Belichick; because striving and learning from loss is a more attractive idea than the quest for historical perfection.

The best contests make for great narratives, stories that create interest in what will happen next. Which brings me to politics. Today is Super Tuesday. The use of that word “super” is enough to connect the great political contest to the athletic one. In addition, sports metaphors for political coverage abound: from the pugilistic confrontation in one-on-one debates; to who scores a knockout; to the Comeback Kid; to whether or not this is the bottom of the ninth or a two-minute drill; to whether it’s a marathon or a sprint to the finish; to whether one side is attempting an all-out blitz; to the great granddaddy of them all: the horse race.

Ah, yes, the horse race: Will McCain come from behind? Are Obama and Clinton neck and neck? Will one win by a nose? Is Huckabee a mudder? Monday night, NBC titled its coverage “Down to the wire.”

With many others, I have argued since 1988 that exaggerated attention to the horse race takes the public’s eyes off of issues and problem solving. It is a poor substitute for shoe-leather reporting among the electorate.

The public journalism movement of the 1990s hammered at the sports metaphor like a blacksmith pounding a horseshoe on an anvil. My much admired friend, Jay Rosen, has sanded the rust off that hammer in a recent essay, arguing that the horse race may help journalists, but it may not help the public.

Jay uses the Bill James metaphor of “inside baseball” to reveal the narrow frames through which traditional political journalists cover presidential elections. As a champion of serious bloggers, Jay describes their value in commenting on politics from “outside” the game.

What has me flip-flopping on horse race coverage, I will confess, is the experience of Sunday night’s Super Bowl. I know that Jay loves sports, and, if memory serves, he is a fan of New York sports, so I’m going to take a wild guess that he was celebrating the victory of the Giants with naked abandon. He and my fellow New Yawkers have every right to do so.

Sports matter, most of all, because they create interest and passion, they get our blood pumping and our hands clapping in a way no deliberative conversation about health care ever could. I’m left with the conclusion that we should not only tolerate horse race coverage of elections, but learn to love it.

Jay’s book, “What Are Journalists For?,” asks a provocative question in the title that can be answered in different ways. One of my answers would be: Journalists exist to make important things interesting. (This may be harder to argue at a time when so much celebrity, gossip and crime reporting tries to make interesting things sound important.)

In short, the horse race makes a campaign and an election interesting.

In this horse race, of course, it helps to have a noble old warhorse, a spirited filly, a handsome young thoroughbred and a well-groomed stallion with good blood lines. The key for journalists will be to use the interest created by horse race coverage for some public service announcements — and to invite fans into the debate about who will win and why.

Let me extend the analogy to the point of exhaustion. What if we imagined the coverage of Super Tuesday the way we experience the Super Bowl? If the contest is taut, competitive and exciting, we’ll sit riveted to find out what will happen next. But our curiosity will be interrupted by time outs, public service announcements and product commercials. We journalists need great horse race coverage to create an attention to political character and durability, to a wide range of issues and to the thoughts and hopes of the American electorate.

Monday, I reviewed all the coverage of the Super Bowl by The Boston Globe on boston.com. Schadenfreude aside, it was fascinating to see how many different directions this event — so crucial to the community’s vision of itself — played out on the Web site. In addition to traditional coverage of the event itself through game stories, columns and photography, there were three or four paths through which spirited, profane and knowledgeable fans could express their joy or frustration. There was argument and debate, conversation and consolation, anger and resignation. Do we cover the political horse race this way?

Sports coverage was once denigrated as the “toy department” of the newsroom. Those days are long gone, and rightly so. Every important sporting event casts a light on who we are as a people. Too often the sight it reveals is not beautiful to behold. But isn’t it interesting how sports have played a crucial role in the march toward race and gender equality in America. Sports — like it not — drag us back to politics, back to what matters.

[What do you see as the strengths and weakness of the sports frames journalists use to cover politics?]

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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