Politics vs. Sports: Hypocrisy or Loyalty?


I am not a sports fan. Which is not to say I don’t like sports or don’t have any respect for them, I just don’t have the spirit of a fan. A good sports fan chooses a team and makes that team part of their personal identity. The relationship may be rocky, but it is a relationship. When their team does well they feel a thrill of victory, and when it does poorly they feel a pain of loss. A true fan is willing to overlook weaknesses and mistakes and will hope for great things even when things look dire. A true fan has great faith.

Recent Gallup polls peg the number of self-identified Sports fans in the US at around 60% of the population. That turns out to be right around the same percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in presidential elections in the US. I don’t know exactly what the crossover is, but it would seem that for two, popular, and time-honored sources of competition, about 60% of Americans can be roused to pick a side.

Not only is there a similar level of enthusiasm, but there seems to be a very similar mindset at play. At least among those who explicitly or implicitly join one of the two rival political camps, the mentality, and ethics of what makes a good political supporter are very similar to what makes a good sports fan. The best supporters, in either case, are unwavering in their support, and willing to accept a team or candidate that is not ideal, but which they have some personal connection to. To deviate from that support makes you something of a traitor, and to express serious doubts, not a true team player. Even if you did become disenchanted, if your only alternative is to support the rival, you are far more likely to just sit out the contest.

How you become attached to a team in both sports and politics is often a largely arbitrary event. Typically, whichever one you are first exposed to in a positive light, is the one you become a fan of. While fans do change alliances on occasion, it usually happens only once or at most twice in a lifetime. Once a fan, always a fan. Politics has a bit more swing, especially when someone comes of age and gets a more hands-on sense of what political policy means in their own life, but once that personal connection is made, it is not often broken.

Once a team is chosen, the process of self-selective reinforcement begins. You tend to associate more with people who share your view, and less with those who don’t. Your social ties become part of your fan/politics identity. You trust sources that have similar views to your own and distrust others. You listen more to those who have a similar view. While you have plenty of interaction with your rivals, it is always in the context of a fight, where each is duty bound to oppose the other. Words spoken are there to intimidate and define identity, not to actually persuade. Both sides know that is not going to happen because fans are about loyalty. It is not just what they think, it is who they are and who they are shapes what they think.

In politics, nothing typifies all this more than the charges of “hypocrisy” among the other party. Every day there is some new “gotcha” where one side catches the other saying something different than what they are doing. They think they have somehow shown that their opponents have no true commitment to an ideology and are instead simply cheerleading their side. And it always goes both directions, and indeed, these are not just imagined examples of hypocrisy and double standards, they are often right on point. And when shoved in a person’s face, the truth difficult to deny, the classic response is to say “so are you” and offer your own side’s examples of the failing of the others.

Both sides smugly decide the other side is bad, and they are good, but what they are missing so blindly is that both sides never really valued ideals in the first place. Those are just points of advertising, not commitments for action. What matters is that you are a good supporter of your side, and a good supporter can forgive a failure to follow an ideal once in a while. If it is for the good of the team it is for the good of all. Far better a loyal hypocrite than a principled traitor in the worlds of both sports and politics.

Of course in both sports and politics, there are those who simply play the system rather than pick a team. In sports, the casinos, leagues, and TV stations would be good examples. It is the conflict that makes them money, the passions surrounding it, and the clashing loyalties. It is all good for business. Likewise in politics, large corporations often have no ideological concern, only that whoever wins the fight is somehow beholden to them for their support in winning that fight. They are happy to quietly support both sides and make gains that are as little known and as little understood as possible, lets they become interests championed by one or the other.

And there is me. I’m not a sports fan. I can’t muster any kind of attachment to a team of people I don’t know even if they are said to represent the city I live in. Their victory is not my victory but theirs. I may enjoy the interplay of the game, but I have no stake in it, nor do I really want one. In politics, I really don’t want a side and I can’t be loyal for any reason other than they policies they want to pursue are ones I think are wise. If both sides have a mix of things I think are wise and unwise, I have to find some reason for picking one or the other. I see the hypocrisy all around me as well as the fact so few people really care about it. I look to some who seem to share my lack of allegiance and find either a lot of radicals I can’t agree with or cynics who truly don’t care. It feels a bit lonely in the passionate but unaligned moderate wing of no party in particular.

It is human nature to form teams, to gather together in solidarity, and to make personal compromises for the benefits offered by that team. What I often see so broken in modern American politics is that those teams don’t often deliver all that much of the benefits offered. Partly it is because of limited power, partly because it is rare for one team to gain enough control to truly dictate policy. Partly because when there are only two parties, each will be so broad in their mandates that they can rarely achieve a specific action that makes all their supporters happy. What I wish, is that more people could break away from their loyalty and focus more on their own principles. Then, shop around, and when they do support a team, do so without buying in whole-hog. Recognize it for the compromise it is, and instead of cheering it no matter what, be honest about its strengths and weaknesses. And above all, don’t fall into the trap that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They aren’t. They might make a useful ally for a time, but they do not deserve your unwavering loyalty.

In sports, hey, do what makes you feel good. There is a place where no harm comes from diving in full throttle and indulging in some irrational loyalty and love. While I don’t share in it, I honor and respect it. I’m even a little jealous.



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