Not all sports questions are trivia questions. Try this one: Is a level playing field just another breakable norm?
The relentless campaign by ex-President Trump to undermine poll workers, ballot counters, election officials, and even the final vote tally itself offers up an analogy no true sports fan can ignore. Trump and his Republican teammates were not simply working the refs. Their goal was to have the referees replaced by hand-picked flunkies firmly in their back pocket.
Not a bad strategy, if you can get away with it.
Our culture is awash in the many ways sports can promote values that go far beyond sports. Business experts, religious leaders, career counselors, and self-help gurus freely tout life-lessons to be learned from athletic competition. On occasions like Superbowl Sunday, when the announcers get to preaching, the entire nation can seem like one giant locker room gathered for a halftime sermon.
Well, perhaps we are.
Team USA is now primed for a pep talk, and President Biden is well-positioned to deliver it. To do so, however, Biden and his speechwriters will need to move beyond convenient clichés drawn from shopworn sagas of crunch-time heroics.
Because all the sage advice distilled from the exploits of all our fabled champions – Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Bill Belichick, Tiger Woods, the list goes on – won’t be of much use in the looming struggle with one particularly dangerous foe, the nasty partisan vitriol.
Luckily, there is a sports figure who can help with that.
You’ve seen him on the court, the gridiron, the ball field, the field of play, often cloaked in zebra stripes, hidden in plain sight. Referees, umpires, and linesmen are fully immersed in the action yet removed from the furies consuming everyone else. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Trust that the game won’t be rigged is the indispensable ingredient that makes sports exciting. And meaningful. And admirable. And worthy of our rapt attention. The guarantee of a level playing field is vital to bringing out the best in the players and, equally important, encouraging as many as possible to get out there and participate.
Without that guarantee, well, we all know what civic and political life can become without it.
Referees and umpires put up with a lot of crap in the performance of their duties, and it’s possible Biden himself has been among those enthusiastically dishing it out from his box at a Phillies or Eagles game.
No matter, it goes with the territory. Sports officials are thick-skinned. Like those intrepid ballot counters working through the night in battleground states, they believe wholeheartedly in the significance of their work, regardless of who wins. And it’s about time that fans – excuse me, citizens – learn to believe in it too.
Touting analogies to the storybook exploits of athletic superstars has its place, and there may well be occasions in the coming years when Biden will want to spice up his message with a reference to the grit and dedication displayed by LeBron James or Megan Rapinoe’s craftiness and courage.
But if a more collaborative, less divisive, more harmonious, less combative society is one we’re finally ready to take concrete steps towards building, the sports figure with the most to teach us may not be the MVP clutch hitter, the power forward with the gleaming rings, or the cunning coach brimming with inventive stratagems for vanquishing the opposition.
Time to recalculate.
The Biden era will be best served by a different kind of sports icon, one who won’t be found in the spotlight but will instead be nearer the sideline, clutching a silver whistle, eyes focused on Fairness, that treasured prize all sides can equally share. These days, that’s the hero we need in the winner’s circle.