OPINION — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week lamented that Democrats would never be satisfied with a one-week FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, saying he expects “soon enough the goal posts will be on the move once again.” McConnell, going full Knute Rockne, also has said of the Kavanaugh nomination and investigation: “We’re going to be moving forward. I’m confident we’re going to win.”
Thankfully, the Kentucky senator did not channel another Republican, Ronald Reagan, with an exhortation that the win would be for “The Gipper.”
Still, McConnell sure knows his way around a sports metaphor. “So, my friends, keep the faith, don’t get rattled by all of this. We’re going to plow right through it and do our job,” McConnell said to religious conservatives at a recent Value Voters Summit, sounding like coach sending his star running back out to crash through the opponent’s defense.
Pan out to survey an inspired locker room tearing up a bit before taking the field — in every sports movie ever.
To be fair, it’s not just McConnell. The language of gritty, down-and-dirty, win-at-all-costs sports seems ever more appropriate as the political game has come to resemble a team sport, complete with colors, slogans, braggadocio and bile hurled at the hated opponent, with, of course, winners and losers. President Trump certainly left it all on the field with his rough denunciation of Christine Blasey Ford at a Mississippi rally on Tuesday.
Are Democrats trying to “run out the clock,” delaying the investigation of Kavanaugh until the midterms and a possible change in House and Senate leadership? Or is everyone on either side of the aisle taking it “one day at a time” because “it’s not over till it’s over”?
The tired clichés that are mildly annoying when brandished like absent-minded mantras by players, coaches and commentators on a Sunday afternoon become frivolous when they are used to describe democracy, stripped of all nuance or hint of compromise, qualities that make democracy work.
Watch: McConnell Says Protesters Won't ‘Intimidate’ GOP Senators
On the gridiron
Now “team” matters above all, and that includes consideration of what may be best for the country — and what happens to the “losers” who aren’t going anywhere and are just as American as the opposition?
Didn’t we get into some of this Supreme Court trouble when future Chief Justice John Roberts promised to be a nonpartisan umpire? “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules,” he said. “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”
Then, he turned out to be a mostly reliable and rigid conservative on everything from campaign finance to voting rights. When he tossed a switch up to keep the Affordable Care Act in play, boy, did his team members howl that he let them down.
The NFL’s rivalries — Cowboys vs. Giants, Patriots vs. everybody else — have nothing on where the U.S. finds itself, complete with painted faces and outlandish costumes.
What are the characteristics of every sports or political rivalry? Team colors, of course, in this case red and blue. Slogans, from clever to crude, emblazoned on posters, T-shirts and caps? Check. Seen or heard at right-leaning Trump rallies: “Drain the swamp” and “I’d Rather Be a Russian Than a Democrat.” At current protests of the Kavanaugh nomination: “Kava-Nope” and “One sexual predator on the Supreme Court is enough.”
Sports fans love to stick it to the opposition on enemy turf, which is why Kanye West showed up on “Saturday Night Live” wearing a red MAGA cap and delivering a Make America Great Again ode to Trump, over the vocal disapproval from many in the crowd and stricken looks from SNL cast members frozen onstage with him. Shades of actor-comedian Bill Murray in Madison Square Garden, draped in Chicago Bulls regalia when his home state team dueled the New York Knicks, met with a chorus of boos when caught on the big screen.
From the sidelines
But in politics, as in sports, team spirit can devolve into dehumanization of the other side and boisterous behavior just this side of (and sometimes crossing into) violence. Additional security measures are already in place on Capitol Hill.
Single-minded fanaticism (that’s where “fan” came from) also crowds out other, arguably more important news. With the attention on Trump, the Senate, Kavanaugh, Democrats and Republicans, the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia and the fate of migrant children moved at night to a Texas tent city are relegated pretty quickly to “in other news” packages.
Oddly enough, as politics has morphed into sport, sports have become increasingly political, with NFL protests of police brutality and inequality earning conservative rebuke. Trump trolls LeBron James as the basketball star opens a school, once a task that would instead merit the praise of leaders. But neither would ever find themselves on the same team.
I’ve always appreciated sports, even the rough stuff. How could I avoid rah-rah partisanship growing up in Baltimore, where football dynasties past and present ruled? A subplot in the 1982 film “Diner” featured the fiancée of a lead character challenged to a Colts quiz before the march down the aisle. The Ravens, despite their graceful literary nod to Edgar Allan Poe, paved the way to Super Bowl wins with a brutal defense. I covered Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, with a competitive Panthers-Patriots game and a Janet Jackson half-time show that few will forget.
But fandom eventually meant ignoring the human consequences of those exciting hits, the concussions and the cover-up that masked what happens when teams go for broke.
Bad things can happen when winning means everything, a lesson for U.S. leaders as they eagerly spike the ball.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.