Basketball Battles and Political Scores (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game)

Author: Jackie Salit
Created: 10 April, 2019
Updated: 14 August, 2022
7 min read

With politics in a permanent state of chaos, we might have to look outside the political sphere to be grounded politically. At least I do. Sports is a good place to turn -- real sports, not the blood sport of partisanship and governance.

Like a lot of people, I spent my Sunday night glued to the television. Not to watch 60 Minutes and its pompous narrative of “what Americans should be concerned about.” Heaven forbid. But to watch the women’s basketball teams of Notre Dame and Baylor battle it out in Tampa Bay for the NCAA women’s basketball championship.

Led by two powerful female coaches, Muffet McGraw and Kim Mulkey, this was a heart-stopping performance of skill, error, strength, injury, tears, expectations, failures and teamwork. Baylor won by one point in the cliffhanging final seconds, after their 17-point lead had evaporated and their top rebounder and shot blocker, Lauren Cox, was injured with just over a minute to go in the third quarter.

Some simple post-game observations, the kind that remind me that there is more humanity and decency in basketball than in politics.

First off, these were women athletes led by women coaches. They were so intimate with one another and so “there” for each other that it took your breath away. There was not a hint of victimhood, of the “MeToo” mentality, of women calling out the bad behavior of the male-dominated world.

I’m not saying that those abuses don’t go on in the NCAA and at those schools. Mulkey and McGraw, I’m sure, could fill a twelve-volume encyclopedia with documented evidence of same. But in this arena, there was no room for “consciousness-raising” or complaint.

When Lauren Cox went down under the basket, writhing in agony, Mulkey and the athletic trainer kneeled over her to assess the injury, to comfort her and help her manage the pain. In the break, a newscaster asked Mulkey how she felt about losing Cox, and she said in her distinctive Louisiana twang, “I could cry but I’ve got work to do.”

Forgive me if I’m being sappy, but I think a lot of Americans feel that way about our country.

Another point about the game. And this extends to the men’s NCAA tournament as well. On the court and off, there are black people and white people, playing together, sweating together, fighting for the ball alongside one another, getting fouled together—you know what I mean. This is not a Kumbaya thing. This is what life can look like when people are creating positive things together on a level playing field.

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And then there is the abundant physical intimacy. Coach Chris Beard of Texas Tech — who led the men’s team, the Red Raiders, to a semi-finals win over Michigan State on Saturday night — kissed his amazing guard, Matt Mooney, in a post-game interview before turning the microphone over to him. Some sportscasters questioned whether this man-boy affection was appropriate. Of course it was. The passion of the game tears away the fabric of social constraint. We need more of that these days.

I’ve become convinced over many years in political life that the game of politics often brings out the worst in people, unlike sports which can often bring out the best. Donald Trump has elevated “the worst” to a high art form, but he is simply the product of a corrupted political system that thrives on self-dealing, self-aggrandizement, and self-perpetuation.

The tools of popular resistance to that corruption are so underdeveloped that voting for Trump became the grand scale means of protest in the 2016 general election. When the pollster Pat Caddell observed that voting for Trump was not the rebels’ best choice, but it was the only choice, that’s what he meant.

This remark was echoed by Democratic Party presidential insurgent Pete Buttigieg who said that his fellow Democrats needed to grasp that the Trump vote was an attempt by some millions of Americans “to burn the house down.”

Instead of responding to this with both compassion and toughness, the Dems are tied up judging whether Joe Biden’s overly affectionate hugs disqualify him from being president. I’m not sure how the injury from those “invasions” of personal space compare to the injury from the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the authorizations for which Biden voted in 2001.

Since I’m obviously now into a political thing, a few comments on Howard Schultz’s appearance at the Fox News Town Hall last week. First, I loved that he decided to do it, given that the Democratic National Committee had just announced that it would not conscript Fox to host a primary debate due to the inherent pro-Trump bias at the network. Schultz, who is considering an independent run for the presidency, and is as ardently anti-Trump as any Democrat, was willing to go into the foxes’ lair.

Score one for Schultz. Apparently Bernie Sanders is doing the Fox Town Hall as well. Score one for him, too.

Schultz had a very good strategy for the Fox appearance. He announced early on that he wasn’t there to trash Trump, but to discuss the challenges facing the country. The hosts, Bret Baier and Martha McCallum, tried to lure him into a variety of traps, first asking three (three!) questions about Joe Biden, later asking him whether he thought Trump had done anything good for the country since becoming president. Schultz replied that he thought Trump had done some good things (he did not enumerate) but thought that the president’s character was severely wanting.

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He then turned to the live audience in Kansas City, Missouri that had been handpicked by Fox. He asked whether anyone there would choose to model their children’s behavior on Trump’s. No one raised their hand.

In another of his more potent comments, Schultz cited the two parties’ failure to deliver immigration reform.

“The problem we have with both parties, the American people are not in the room,” he said. “I’ll tell you who’s in the room: self-interest, ideology, self-preservation, and their ability to get re-elected.”

Another key point was when Schultz cited the numbers of Americans — 42% -- who have chosen to self-identify as independents, defying the propaganda that this community of voters doesn’t exist. Good timing here. New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore just wrote an article based on a recent Pew survey which tries (yet again) to establish that most independents are really partisans. Kilgore wrote, “So that big, potentially irresistible force poised between two parties is mostly a figment of the imagination.......Get used to it, Mr. Schultz”

Well, here’s an alternative. Mr. Kilgore and most other Democrat partisans may want to get used to the reality of that 42%, especially since independents — in a 24% swing — just gave them control of the House and are very much in play in the 2020 presidential election. Let’s not forget that denying the existence of those who are rejecting the status quo cost the Democrats the White House last time.

Okay, enough politics for now. Let me get grounded again. Here’s a final note on the NCAA Women’s Finals. When the game was over and the Baylor Lady Bears had won, the two teams walked down each other’s line to shake hands or fist bump in a show of good sportsman(woman)ship.

Kim Mulkey stopped when she got to Arike Ogunbowale, the dazzling Notre Dame guard who had won the championship for the Irish over UConn last year in the final seconds. Ogunbowale, having just missed a free throw that might have changed this year’s outcome, was despondent over the loss. Mulkey grabbed her fiercely and leaned in to say some words. You couldn’t hear them, but you could tell they were words of love and respect and demand. Arike held back the tears.

And that’s why I can turn to sports when I sometimes feel despondent about the state of our nation. We’d all like to cry. But we have work to do.

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Photo Source: AP

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