Maybe Sport Can Lead Us Out of Tribalism

When a society becomes too complicated or too fast-paced, citizens retreat to the leisure of sport. Sport provides a welcome break from their responsibilities of daily life. Passivity plus certainty equals comfort. Everyone watches together. Any disputes about the outcome dissipate quickly. And nobody could do anything about it.

Sport has changed its shape over the centuries, but the relief it provides the public has remained constant. Gladiators in the Roman Coliseum gave way to Christian-breath lions. Marie Antoinette’s recipe for civic rest was bread and circuses, until the guillotine gave the masses more of the certainty they craved, plus a dash of bloodlust.

The Olympics fill this need every two years. Nations compete on beautifully designed and thankfully metaphorical battlefields. The circus has come to town this week and next, and the bread has been replaced with chips and dip. If you’re enjoying it, more powerlessness to you.

Turn away from the spectacle of the Winter Olympics for just a few hours this Sunday. Use your DVR to record the halfway mark in Seoul and watch something else. It could be an important first step toward preserving our own society.

Viewership for the National Basketball Association’s midseason All-Star Game has been declining for years. The game has taken a back seat to the annual dunking contest, because none of the players have been willing to play defense. Watching two teams sprint up and down the court, combining for 300 or more points is exhausting and not very much fun.

Basketball is often the first professional sport to make changes to keep its fans engaged. Other sports often follow the NBA’s lead. So there’s plenty at stake when Team LeBron takes on Team Stephen this weekend.

As in years past, fans voted for the players they would most like to see in the All-Star Game. This year, only the top two mattered. LeBron James and Stephen Curry gathered the most votes, so they will be the team captains. But after that, nothing is the same.

Coaches nominated the best players in the league to create a pool of talent for the two captains to dip into. As happens on every schoolyard and in every YMCA gymnasium, the captains met to choose up sides. They picked the players they wanted on their team, regardless of which conference or for which team they play.

James and Curry are leading basketball back to its “shirts or skins” roots. The players are less important than the teams and the game. And this could be just the sort of signal our society needs to see right now.

In an age when tribalism is the unchecked force behind even the most intimate decisions we make, the NBA is sending a powerful message. The stars of the league will be playing for the love of the game.

Jerry Seinfeld was right when he observed that fans are essentially cheering for laundry. It doesn’t matter who the player is, so long as they are wearing the right colored jersey. We might root for them tonight, but if they’re traded to another team tomorrow, then we’d rather cheer for the new person who is now wearing their laundry.

Political observers have marveled at how much the Republican party has changed under President Trump, but the labels haven’t changed. The laundry is still the same. Do Republicans really care about law-and-order or the budget deficit? Are Democrats really willing to fund a wall between us and Mexico?

It doesn’t matter. Just don’t ask anyone to change the labels — the laundry — that they identify as their own.

But now, along come two basketball superstars to pick the players they want on their team, without regard for labels and laundry. Suddenly, the focus shifts back to the players, their talents, and the game they play.

Most fans will have a hard time figuring out which side to cheer for, because they may have favorite players on both teams. Heaven forfend! We may find ourselves enjoying the acrobatics of the game without caring very much who wins. That will be a lesson we can apply to more important arenas.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.