Rationalizing defeat

Published 3:11 pm Wednesday, December 20, 2006

For years, I’ve had a running debate with a friend involved in professional sports. Who gets the worst press coverage, jocks or politicians? My argument is that fans wouldn’t tolerate the nonsense that passes for journalism in Washington. Just recently, The Washington Post ran a front-page story mentioning casually that Social Security will go flat broke in 2040, which happens to be completely false. It’s partisan scare-talk.

If they’d reported the Redskins score backward, somebody would have been fired. My friend agrees but objects to the rumor-mongering, character assassination and moralistic posturing that characterize much sports punditry.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by how much the two realms have come to resemble each other. Consider college basketball’s opening week. Due to the growth of early-season tournaments, highly ranked teams faced opponents they’d normally have avoided until the NCAA tournament. The results were similar to what happens during “March Madness” each year: TV schools from glamour conferences lose to hungry teams nobody’s heard of.

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OK, that’s an exaggeration. Serious fans know that Gonzaga, which “upset” North Carolina, has a terrific basketball tradition. Marquette, which handled Duke decisively, plays in the Big East. Elsewhere, though, Oral Roberts defeated Kansas. The Butler Bulldogs beat Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. Granted, Butler’s in Indianapolis, and no Indiana basketball team should ever be considered obscure.

Even so, to ESPN’s basketball gurus, these bizarre results needed to be explained away. It went roughly like this: Hey, it’s only November. UNC Coach Roy Williams hasn’t settled on his regular lineup yet. Problem is, he’s got too much talent. Ditto for the sainted Coach K at Duke. Fear not, ACC fans. Both teams are the “real deal.” You can count on it.

Funny, but I thought it was November on both ends of the court. Meanwhile, here’s something else you can count on: Duke and Carolina games on ESPN every time you turn on the television. Along with the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and the other power conferences. If you’d rather watch Butler or Oral Roberts, you’re out of luck. Gonzaga vs. Pepperdine may be televised. Alas, by tipoff time in Spokane, much of the nation’s crucial beer-buying demographic will be sound asleep.

So yeah, it’s mainly hype involving TV contracts and money, this Top 25 business. I hope you’re not shocked.

What amused me was how much the jock talk mimicked the post-election rationalizations of many Washington pundits. What, Karl Rove not a genius? “Conservatism” rejected? Democrats preferred? Say it ain’t so.

On cue, many adopted the line taken by talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh. Despite the Democrats’ takeover of Congress, the party had a tiger by the tail. CBS’s Bob Schieffer put it succinctly: “The problem that Nancy Pelosi is going to have is not so much with the Republican White House, but with her own party. These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats. They are not like some of the liberal firebrands that are in the House right now.”

Could Pelosi, a known woman, pull it off? On the same day Democrats unanimously elected her Speaker of the House — the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history — pundit chatter focused upon the “stunning” defeat of Rep. John Murtha, her preferred candidate for majority leader.

Was Pelosi’s leadership doomed before it started? New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused her of “throw(ing) like a girl,” by “making her first move based on relationships and past slights rather than strategy” — a characterization more reflective of her own preoccupations than Pelosi’s.

Much coverage focused upon the Speaker’s clothing, makeup and hair. Google “Armani” and “Pelosi” if you doubt me. Then try to find out what brand of suits Speaker Dennis Hastert wears. FoxNews pundit Mort Kondracke dubbed Pelosi “the Wicked Witch of the West.”

In short, the Democrats lost by winning. GOP intraparty contests were not depicted as divisive, despite the comeback of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, last seen being unceremoniously dumped as an unrepentant segregationist.

But was any of it based on reality? Were incoming Democratic congressmen largely conservative? Mediamatters.org surveyed their campaign platforms. Guess what? Every single Democrat elected advocates changing course in Iraq. All support raising the minimum wage. All oppose privatizing Social Security. All but two favor embryonic stem-cell research. Exactly five describe themselves as “pro-life.”

Ignore the flattops and the boots. Like Pelosi’s wardrobe, they’re trivialities: Every Democrat elected ran to the left of the Republicans they defeated. The clear losers Nov. 7 were moderate Republicans, a vanishing breed. Moreover, polls show that most voters — up to two-thirds in some cases — agree with Democrats on these issues.

Anybody who expects Pelosi, a seasoned, disciplined politician, to waste this historic opportunity on purely symbolic “hot button” issues helpful to GOP propagandists is apt to be confounded.

It’s time some of these jokers started reading from a different playbook.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.)