Watching the American presidential race is always an exercise in frustration for me. I can never figure out how, as polarized as the two sides have become, so many untruths can carry the day: John Kerry exaggerated his combat history; Obama is a secret Muslim bent on destroying America (which he apparently needs two terms to accomplish); Obamacare's "end of life" services are "death panels" that will kill seniors by denying them treatment. There are countless examples.
How can so many people be so wrong — and then still believe that wrong things are right after they've been debunked by fact checkers and destroyed by analysis?
It wasn't so long ago that I came to the realization that the secret to understanding American politics is to try and understand their uniquely intense passion for sports; political parties are teams, and you root for your team no matter what. You stick by the coach. You stick by the players. And the goal is to win at all costs.
This sports analogy works at every level: my school is better than your school, my town is better than your town, my state/province/team/candidate/god/brand of beer is better than yours, and so on, until we're arguing Milky Way vs. M1. Sports fandom is not so different from patriotism, nationalism, brand loyalty and other divisive concepts.
It's a slippery slope. I guess I can probably thank the last NHL lockout in 2004-05 for helping me see that, as well as the opportunity of seeing an Olympic Games up close.
Now another hockey lockout is underway and I find myself comfortably removed from caring all that much — not because I don't like hockey, I still watch the playoffs long after my team is eliminated (assuming they even make it to the playoffs, which they never do) — but because I'm finally figuring out what sport is, and what it isn't. I'm happier sitting on the fence.
Watching two corporations do battle when the ultimate goal is making money is a bit of a turnoff for me. The fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't have any players from Southern Ontario last season, and the Montreal Canadiens have just one French player heading into this season, underlines the commercial side of the sport for me like never before. How can people seriously cheer on a team of hired guns that don't really represent the towns they are ostensibly playing for? It has all the appeal of cheering for Coke over Pepsi.
At least Olympics are still about competing for something bigger than money, though I'm still uncomfortable with all the nationalist chest thumping around the Games. When money equals medals, and countries are recruiting children into sports as soon as they're old enough to walk, somehow gold loses its lustre.
Liberating myself from the worst excesses of fandom has actually made me a bigger sports fan in a lot of ways because I'm not rooting for any one athlete, team or country; I'm just rooting for awesome. I love a fourth quarter come-from-behind victory in football, playoff-style hockey, junior and amateur sports, individual sports and events that recognize consistency over the course of a season rather than just one-time victory — such as World Cup events for cycling or skiing/snowboarding. I care about sports, deeply. I just don't care, most of the time, who wins. And I want sports to be better.
I want the CFL to finally acknowledge defeat and change rules to reflect the NFL; the world plays hockey by our rules, we should play by the rules of the top league. CFL teams could become farm teams for NFL squads and expand to create a true coast to coast league with teams in Halifax, St. John, Moncton, Quebec City, Mississauga, Ottawa, Windsor, Saskatoon and Victoria.
I want lacrosse to get the attention it deserves, moving the sport to the summer months where it won't have to compete with hockey, basketball and football for an audience.
I want to encourage NHL teams to develop and showcase local talent by investing in young talent and creating a separate local draft system for younger players. I want every team to set aside 1,000 nosebleed seats that are available at low rates anyone can afford.
I want instant replay of goals and penalties in soccer and rugby. I want the rules to change in the NBA so time-outs expire and free-throws are worth twice as much in the last three minutes of the game so they don't take 20 minutes to get through. I want tennis players to go back to wood rackets with small heads so power matters less and skills matter more. I want countries to stop counting medals at the Olympics, and to enjoy the competitions individually.
Learning to sit on the fence in sports has also taught me how to sit on the fence in politics, and the insanity of rooting for one party over another regardless of what they do or say. Fan is the short form for "fanatic" after all, defined as "furious or mad," or "characterized by excessive enthusiasm." Not really a good thing to be.