Politics took a spring break in the U.S. capital this past week; its first cousin, sports, filled the void.
President Barack Obama did announce a modified U.S. posture on the use of nuclear weapons and went to Prague to sign an arms-reduction pact with Russia. And on April 9, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his resignation. Still, Congress was out, the big economic news was the week before and no new scandal erupted.
Even more than politics, sports are an obsession with people around the world; nowhere is it more pitched in as many games and levels as in the U.S. Sometimes we forget, says University of San Francisco anthropologist George Gmelch, that “sports coverage in North American newspapers surpasses that of the economy, politics or any other single topic -- or that sport occupies a major portion of our television programming (there are seven U.S. cable channels dedicated exclusively to sports), or that many Americans are now more devoted to their sports than their religion.”
There’s a direct kinship to politics. In both there are winners and losers, the competition is intense, with the participants often second-guessed by spectators, and there is an abundance of controversy, some scandal.
Washington, like much of America, was riveted by the college basketball tournament -- the first fan, the president, even gave a TV interview from the White House court -- which came within one shot, and a few inches of being the most memorable game ever. (Perennial power Duke University squeaked by Cinderella Butler.)
While reveling in a tournament that saw little-known upstarts such as Northern Iowa and Cornell of the elite Ivy League, defeat powerful basketball schools, the leaders of college athletics rained on their own parade; the 64-team tournament, which balances quality and inclusiveness, likely will expand to 96 teams next year.
This will encourage mediocrity and make more money. The latter is the dominant concern of too many leaders of higher education; it trumps the academic interests of the players and the institutions and the desires of fans, whether it’s the basketball tournament’s expansion or insistence on keeping the antiquated football bowl game schedule.
One of the top teams in college basketball this season was the University of Kentucky. Recent figures show that just 31 percent of its basketball players graduate and a year ago the university brought in a hot-shot coach, John Calipari, who took two separate schools to the tournament finals only to have that achievement wiped from the record books for rules violations. The team was led by four fabulous freshmen, all of whom last week indicated they’re going to leave without graduating and play professionally next year. So much for the student-athlete concept.
Many basketball-crazed fans in Lexington, Kentucky, couldn’t care less about student athletes or graduation rates, or their coach’s ethical transgressions; he wins games.
Professional sports are supposed to be about money. As the U.S. -- and much of the world -- watched this past week the return of Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer in the history of the game, to the fabled Augusta Masters Tournament there were dollar signs all over the saga.
Woods was forced to take a four-month hiatus from golf when it was revealed he was a serial adulterer. He isn’t a public official or head of a religious order and could legitimately claim it was a private matter, not the public’s business. Except that it clashed with his all-American image in his lucrative commercial and business enterprises.
Thus his absence, some of which reportedly was spent at a sex-addiction clinic, seemed aimed at refurbishing that image so he can replenish the bulging wallet. The question, as USA Today sportswriter Christine Brennan asks, is: Given his history, “can we believe” Tiger now? When he insists that the members of his considerable entourage were in no way enablers of his indiscretions he flunks the test. Tiger has every right to say none of your business; it’s tougher to win back respect while dissembling.
There also are, alas, reports, of a drug-dispensing doctor spending time with the golf star. This is an issue that has dominated America’s pastime, baseball, which celebrated one of those marvelous rituals, opening day, this past week.
In Washington, Obama threw out the opening pitch -- a presidential tradition started by William Howard Taft 100 years earlier -- demonstrating that his sport was basketball. The home team, the Nationals, also followed a long tradition by getting clobbered.
There is hope for this hapless team in the young star pitcher, cited in an insightful New Yorker magazine piece on the rites of baseball in the spring. One sentence jumped out; a top baseball executive, dismissing the steroid scandal in the sport, insisted that 30 years from now we’ll look back and say that these performance-enhancing, illicit substances were fine.
Baseball thrives on records -- Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs; Roger Maris’ asterisk-marked 61; Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Ted Williams’ .406 batting average; and Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series. Now one of baseball’s leading muckety-mucks suggests these all can be eclipsed by the latest steroid enhancement du jour?
The good news in Washington is the professional football off-season. One of the bipartisan passions in a politically polarized town is the Washington Redskins, a religion. It has been a secular decade as this once proud team has fallen on hard times. This week, however, it obtained the prized quarterback of rival Philadelphia Eagles, Donovan McNabb.
McNabb, who over the past 11 years has taken the Eagles to the playoffs eight times, was blasted as overrated by conservative talk show spinmeister Rush Limbaugh, who charged he got good press because he was a black quarterback.
An African-American who promises a new day in Washington and is ridiculed by Rush Limbaugh? It’s time to end the fantasy world and get back to politics.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)