Two games are much the same

The Baltimore Sun

I'll have to double-check Wolf Blitzer's collegiate loyalty and also Lee Corso's political affiliation, but last week, I believe I became the charter member of the uber-liberal anti-Terps media elite.

The charges were levied in successive days, when I found myself interviewing voters and writing about a presidential election on a Tuesday and then witnessing the Maryland football team's dismemberment on national TV on a Thursday.

I knew the day was coming. I knew my brief turn as a reporter chipping in with campaign coverage would end and I would return to the cozy confines of a sports press box. I just thought the difference between the two assignments might be a bit more striking. And a lot more profound.

The truth is, politics and sports aren't that different anymore. From the competitors, the supporters and the curious observers to the rhetoric, the back-biting and the strategizing, the respective cultures and their long, thorny tentacles can be indistinguishable.

Speaking to a college class last week, I was told that another journalist had previously noted that the primary difference between sports and politics is the size of the participants. Perhaps, though I would suggest today's candidates are certainly larger than life. They live in bigger homes, they're backed by millions of dollars and their endorsement muscle makes corporate execs drool (Um, thanks, Bob Dole, but I think I'm OK for now ... )

They say politics is like show business for ugly people. More accurately, I think, politics is like a sports arena for the uncoordinated.

The truth is, sports is one of the few common grounds we share with today's politician.

In fact, one of the few common grounds we share with today's politician is sports. It's why the vice presidential candidate labels herself a hockey mom and drops the puck at an NHL game. It's why Sports Illustrated told us about Barack Obama's basketball skills and why both presidential candidates appeared on Monday Night Football.

And it's why when I saw Gov. Sarah Palin speak before the election, she did so on a high school football field, flanked by players, coaches and cheerleaders. Sports is a universal language. The accent might be different but you betcha the details are the same.

"This morning we were in Ohio. We were in the home of Joe the Plumber," Palin told the crowd, which was as loud and inflamed as anything you would see at a Philadelphia sporting event. "And now we are here in Beaver County, Penn., home of Joe the Quarterback.

"Now, Joe Namath is probably a little bit before your time. But do you remember, though, in the biggest game of his life, all the experts had Joe Namath and the Jets written off to defeat? They were up against the elite team that had all the money, and they were held in awe by the media."

[Brief interjection and warning: Yes, Palin likened her foe to the 1968 Baltimore Colts.]

"And Broadway Joe replied, 'We're going to win the game, I guarantee it.' And they won. And I hope Joe won't mind if I paraphrase him some in this state - his home state, Pennsylvania - with your help, we're going to win this state. I guarantee it."

Needless to say, Namath fared better than Palin. But he also had a better coaching.

The entire cycle of an election and a big game is identical. Fervent supporters get lost in anticipation, obsessing over meaningless minutiae, inane trivia and manufactured controversies.

The media don't help. Radio hosts and television pundits have been blessed with the good fortune of knowing everything and a fearlessness to flap their gums rather than bite their tongues.

The passion is the same, too. At rallies and at ballgames, fans wave homemade signs, scream their support at the top of their lungs and are careful to have zero tolerance for the opposition. They also make sure the assembled journalists are aware they're an extension of the enemy and will be treated as such. The reporters, meanwhile, can't be bothered with such concerns because they smell food in the air and there might be a free boxed lunch somewhere. Maybe it's turkey. Or maybe chicken salad.

And on game day - Blue vs. Red - partisan fans cheer from their living rooms, scream at the television and complain about the announcing right up until the moment the final score is called. Then your Super Bowl-in-November party turned either jubilant or somber.

That's the scary part. Today's political climate has created one giant national culture of rival fans. We can't afford to be that divisive. We can't afford to view the competition through a lens of unwavering disgust. Can you imagine how Ohio State Fan would feel if he had to salute Michigan Fan every day for four years? Fortunately, they are different.

And fortunately, in elections, Detroit scales back on the rioting after elections. Otherwise, we still cried, still cursed, still drank, still called our friend who had the audacity of picking the wrong side and left him voice mail messages until his mailbox was full.

[Worth noting: My Election '08 fantasy team - Maese's Mavericks - scored a huge win Tuesday, despite Elizabeth Dole's choke job.]

The sports world was familiar with the day-after cry of the Republicans. They had heard a similar whine come from Chicago every fall for a century now.

Wait until next year.

Wait until 2012.

I'm not sure I can wait that long. Fortunately, we have little things, like Maryland football and the Terps' woeful run defense to help us pass the time.

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