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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shaking Hands after the Game

[If you don't like sports analogies about the election, you'll want to skip this.]

When you have been at Washington State University as a student, as I have, or when you are here at Oregon, as I am, you learn to dislike the Washington Huskies - it's part of the culture. Not just cheer against them, but really, really, dislike their coaches (Neuheisel was not my favorite person), awful fans with their pompous attitudes (one of whom spit on my daughter when she was playing in the band for UCLA), their really bad school colors, everything about them. They share the feeling about us.

But I noticed that whenever the Huskies play outside of the conference, especially post-season tournaments and bowl games, I root for them. Always. It's the same with any Pac-10 team - no matter who they play, I support the Pac-10 team. Why is that? Is it tribalism?

In a sense, perhaps, but I think self-interest is at work. The conference is rated by how well we do when we play teams from other conferences, and when any Pac-10 team destroys an opponent from outside the league, particularly one that is highly touted, it makes the whole league look better - it gives you extra pride in your own team (if that is a source of pride for you, it's not exactly clear why we should care at all who wins these games). In economic terms, there's a positive externality for all the other teams in the league (and sometimes money too, lots of it, if there's revenue sharing, there's better recruiting, and so on).

The presidential primary is like crowning a league champion, and the election in November is like the World Series or Super Bowl matching the champion from each league. During the long, drawn out regular season and league championships, key players can get hurt, sometimes from cheap shots from the other side, there are bad calls in key games, players and coaches sometimes cheat, all sorts of things happen that can infuriate opponents and their fans. The whole process of selecting a champion can bring great disappointment at times, and all but one team will end up frustrated by the process.

Not everyone can put it all aside after the regular season and root for the Huskies, some people simply hate the Huskies no matter what and are happy to see them lose any time, any place (and, without hoping for this, if a team has to blow an important game outside the conference and become the league goat, may as well be them). But most do put it aside, it least that's how it seems to me.

It's not easy to do. If you are in the finals for your league and lose, it's not easy to support the team that beat you when they are in the championship game even though they are in your league, and even though you will look better for having lost to the champion than to have lost to the second place, losing team. If they beat you due to acts by their players or coaches that violate your sense of fair play, it's not easy to forgive and forget.

But you learn to do it. You learn to battle as hard as you can during the game, to do what's needed to get an edge, but once it's over you shake hands, say nice game, and leave it all behind. It's a ritual we make kids do starting with their very first organized sports games. After it's over, they line up, shake or slap hands as the lines pass, and say (or mumble as the case may be) nice game, good game, nice game, way to go. Sometimes it's begrudging, and you can see it, but you do it. With the election, I'm starting to understand why we force people to go through this ritual, it somehow helps, and it stays with you later when you face other tough battles outside of sports.

It's hard not to blame a loss or a personal failure on bad calls by the umpires, the other team playing unfair, a teammate's mistake, the weather, bad luck, the unfair media, whatever. The list of reasons for losing is endless, and it's always something other than getting beaten by the other team because of not being ready to play up to capability. It's always something else.

If you really beat another team, decisively, then one or two bad calls won't matter. Go into the bottom of the ninth four runs up instead of tied and that ball that was called fair (which was clearly foul) wouldn't have mattered, it wouldn't have even happened. Close games are the hardest, and where it's easiest to place the blame for losing on other things. Some small event or set of events will suddenly take on great importance to the defeated team and be used to explain the loss. But that's how battle is when the stakes are high, it's always tough, feelings are always hurt, someone always loses and hates the unfairness of it all.

You are taught, and expected, to play as hard as you can and not to give up no matter how lop-sided the score is. You keep playing just like you would if the score was tied. Only quitters give up. But there is a difference once the score becomes lop-sided. If it's truly a blow-out to the point where the outcome cannot be in doubt, then stealing second in the top of the ninth is a good way to get knocked down the next time you are at the plate (even if it's a different game, pitchers are expected to remember these things). Square to bunt, and the pitch goes at your ear (or that inescapable spot just behind and below the shoulder blade). It would be completely different in a close game, so there are informal rules of conduct, and the rules change once the outcome is known. For example, if it is the league championship game, doing something unnecessarily aggressive that injured a player on the other team making them unavailable for, say, the Super Bowl would bring great resentment, perhaps unforgivably so.

There are also lessons here, I think, for the candidates. We understand that the heat of battle is a tough place to be, and it doesn't always bring out the best in us. Within bounds, and with a bit of time to get over it, we can forgive and forget and fall behind the winner. But once the game, for all intents and purposes, is decided it's different. In a blow-out, the loser still scraps as hard as possible - you never know and everyone admires someone who still beats out a ground ball from hustle when they are losing badly - but the limits on how that determination not to give up can be expressed are much more restrictive. Avoidable injuries to players on the winning team are particularly frowned upon.

But winners have responsibilities too. If you have already won the game, show boat dunks, parading after a home run (another way to get knocked down the next at bat), dancing after a touchdown or on the opposing teams mascot painted on the center of the field, running a squeeze play to score one more run, throwing a long pass after a trick play, that sort of stuff is likely to produce people who just want the Huskies to lose even when they play teams outside the Pac-10. And it's not just players and coaches, same goes for fans of the winning team, rubbing it in simply creates bitterness. You already won.

I don't know what any of you are going to do in the November election, and it may be that transgressions from the regular season are unforgivable to you, I don't know. But the league championship is about over, and when the Democrats play the Republicans this fall in the Championship game, I'm voting for the Democrat. No doubt about it.

    Posted by on Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 03:24 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (135)


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