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Politics, race, sports, and an apology from a delinquent blogger

In August, making their first appearance of the long election season together, John McCain and Barack Obama were asked by Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren to name their greatest personal failure.

McCain said it was the deterioration of his first marriage. Obama cited his experimentation with drugs as a young man.

Now that the election has come to a close, I'm ready to admit my greatest professional failure: The upkeep of this blog. The grumpy emails I received all felt like a punch in the stomach. Did you get laid off? Why does the consistency of this blog suck so much? Where did you go?

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I'm not sure if this posting today is another doomed beginning, or simply a mea culpa for anyone who read it, long ago, and enjoyed it. But I'm here to try this again. Many moons ago, when I told my friend Rick Maese I was going to be blogging for The Sun, he offered some advice: Blogging is hard. It will be fun for about two months, then it will be hard work, just like anything else. I scoffed at the time. Turns out, he couldn't have been more right.

I bring up the election, for most part, because even though I’m a sports writer by trade, it managed to dominate my thoughts over the last four months. I've always enjoyed the tangential connection between sports and politics, whether it's discussing Charles Barkley's aspirations for Alabama's governorship in 2014, former Suns point guard Kevin Johnson's election as mayor of Sacramento, or whether 77-year-old Kentucky senator Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, has enough left on his fastball to seek a third term. And every two years, when elections become such an important part of my own zeitgeist, I tend to think of sports in one of two ways.

They're either a welcome distraction, or they become the most irrelevant and trivial aspect of my life.

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There really isn't a wrong answer, no matter which you choose. David Halberstam, one of the true giants of American letters, touched on one aspect of this on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, trying to put sports in the proper context when compared to real life. It has always been one of my favorite columns. I printed it out and stashed it in my desk drawer, where (after a little digging) I found it again today, years later. This point of Halberstam's still rings true, and it's something I've always tried to remember:

If, in the long run, you need sports to help you through a time of tragedy and to take your mind off a grimmer reality, then you are emotionally in so much trouble in not understanding what is real and what is fantasy that the prospects for your long-term emotional health are probably not very good.  

There is a flip side to that though, and it's really the whole reason why I'm writing this post and why I continue to write about sports for a living as opposed to something more "important." Sometimes sports allow us to understand the absurdities of politics, of tragedy, of social order and of economics better than any political pundit could.

Take Nate Silver, for example. Silver was a math whiz who graduated from the University of Chicago and decided to apply his genius to the world of baseball statistics. He invented PECOTA, the now widely-popular formula for forecasting future performance of Major League Baseball players that is based on a number of mathematical probabilities. In the world of fantasy baseball, he's something of a god. While following the closely-contested Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton earlier this year, Silver began to grow frustrated with the way polling data was being presented by the media. Unreliable polls were given the same credence as historically reliable ones, and daily news cycles were often being driven by outliers and bad sample groups. He wondered if he could use some of the same principals he'd used for baseball on political polling.

The result was the coolest Web site of the election season: FiveThirtyEight.com. (Named for the number of electoral college votes.) For election junkies, it was a twice-daily destination, treated almost the same way any rabid sports fan would treat ESPN.com. Silver predicted every state correctly except Indiana, and the popular vote within a single percentage point. The New York Times called him "one of the breakout online stars of the year."

There is also a human aspect to the way I feel as well about why sports matter, even when they shouldn't. As I've mentioned many times on this blog, I grew up in Big Sky Country, and the great state of Montana. It's a state that defines who I am in many respects, and it is my belief than no man or woman in this country should die before getting a chance to see the vast, naked openness of Eastern Montana wheat fields or the towering, breathtaking views as you drive the Going to The Sun highway in Glacier National Park.

But Montana is also one of least diverse states in the entire union when it comes to black people (.04 percent). There are probably more African-Americans living within a mile of my house in Maryland than there are within the entire state, which covers 147,000 square miles. If it wasn't for the University of Montana and Montana State University football teams, many Montana residents' exposure to minorities would be limited to The Cosby Show. The Washington Post even wrote about the complexities of my state's lily-white complexion in the week leading up to the election.

In college, I was lucky enough, for a few years, to play linebacker on the University of Montana football team. I wasn't particularly skilled compared to many of my peers, and the amount of hard work it would have taken to overcome my paucity of physical tools eventually became too daunting. But because of the people I met, it remains one of the most formative experiences of my life. One of my teammates was a loud, funny, engaging and intelligent African-American cornerback named Justin Gaines, who came to Montana on scholarship from Niceville, Fla. He lived down the hall from me in my dorm, and every day, it seemed, we were arguing about something.

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At 3 a.m., when we should have been asleep, or at the very least studying our playbooks, we were often shouting at one another about politics, social injustices, hidden prejudices and whether or not I could, as a white person, ever truly understand Justin's perspective on the world. Some of the white kids from small Montana towns had muttered the "N-word" in my presence, and between practices and sessions in the weight room, Justin passionately and patiently explained why that was so offensive, and why it didn't excuse it simply because Dr. Dre, Snoop, Tupac and Biggie used it regularly in their songs.

It was the most important learning I did in college, inside a classroom or out.

I didn't realize it then, but these kind of conversations occur in college locker rooms every day, all around the country. Two of my favorite athletes I've covered, Domonique Foxworth and Andrew Crummey, described a very similar experience to me when they were at Maryland. In time, who was black, who was white, who was liberal and who was conservative didn't matter as much as the invested interest people have in listening to and understanding one another.

In politics, it's easy to dismiss someone who doesn't share your viewpoint as the enemy, paint them out to be the bad guy. But when you both wear the same jersey, and when you're both working toward a similar goal, the distance between two people with different views no longer seems so vast. People who strongly disagree on abortion, taxes, gay marriage and any number of issues stand next to one another peacefully and harmoniously in stadiums and bars and cheer for the Ravens every Sunday. Many of them also stand next to one another in our newsroom and put out this paper each day.

I thought a lot about all this in the week leading up to the presidential election, especially when I read stories about how Obama played basketball with a group of friends on election day, and that McCain named Olympic wrestler Henry Suhato (a child of illegal immigrants who won a gold medal in Beijing) as one of the people he'd most like to have dinner with.

It's naive to think that you can bridge the political divide with flag football and conversations about the Olympics, but it's also cynical to think we can't understand one another better by having a conversation about football, or even playing hoops with strangers at the local park. No one is likely to change their opinion on gun control or school vouchers because of it, but it's a lot harder to demonize the other person after you've exchanged high-fives.

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So yes, sports are trivial and irrelevant in the bigger picture.

They are also as important as ever.

Photo: AP


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