sports talk

James Fallows notes that Bill Clinton’s speeches succeed because he treats his listeners as if they are smart, while most political speeches appeal to emotion more than fact. Fallows makes an interesting comparison:

The main other place you hear discussion based on the same assumption that people of any background, education level, or funny-sounding accent can understand sophisticated back-and-forth of argument and counter-claim is sports-talk radio. (“I understand the concern about Strasburg’s arm. But … “) You hear insults and disagreements and put-downs on sports-talk discussions. You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political “authorities” addressing the unwashed.

I’ve noticed this for years. I can hardly stand to listen to political news entertainment shows, whether Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann. Every one of them treats listeners as frothing idiots, and the callers they support on their airwaves only reinforce the image with loony claims and outrageous statements. One of Fallows’ readers echoes my sentiments exactly:

I’ve begun listening to sports talk radio on my way to work because I cannot bear to listen to the news–even NPR cannot escape the false equivalence trap and I find it depressing.  I am not at all interested in sports–as I was so obsessively when I was a boy.  But I enjoy the calls, the laughs, the passion of everybody on 98.5, The Sports Hub. […]  Nobody talks down–in fact, the hosts and callers pile on detail after detail, especially here in Massachusetts about the loved/hated/damned poor Red Sox and all their troubles.

The most successful sports talk radio hosts are highly intelligent and utterly ruthless in insisting that callers contribute information that is useful and fact-based. The culture and language of these shows can be crude, but their passion and devotion to truth is refreshing in a way that barely exists in other public discourse. Why is sports talk so intelligent while political talk is so dumb? Noam Chomsky believes that people invest their intelligence in sports because they are disenfranchised from more valuable pursuits:

Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way — so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports.

You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folks. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports — so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that.

This fits into Chomsky’s theories of society, but on reflection it makes no sense. People can’t really contribute meaningfully to sport, and they know it – you can have pride in your team and buy a ticket, buy a jersey or hat, but you’ll never be on the sporting field. The separation between the sports fan and the elite athlete is even greater than that between the citizen and the politician.

What separates sport from politics, in terms of the intelligence people will bring to the discourse, is that sports has rules and measurable outcomes, and passive participation can be rewarded by being right about the outcome (rewarded by pride, or in the case of sports gambling, by money). Politics lacks easily definable rules and outcomes that are clearly connected to actions on the field.

Is there something that the Internet can do about this, is there some kind of startup that could make politics more like sports, and therefore more attractive for intelligent public discourse? A company called HubDub tried something like this, making a prediction market for politics, sports, entertainment and other topics. Unfortunately, trying to pin down public predictions turned out to be challenging. They ended up shutting down their general prediction market to focus on the most popular topic with a steady revenue model: sports, of course. FanDuel seems like great fun, but it’s also another demonstration that most people will apply their intelligence, time and money to sports in a way that they just won’t to politics.

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