Touchdowns Against the Death of Expertise
A few days ago, while the rest of the civilized world was doing potted literary analysis of Tom Brady’s announcement that he was retiring from the NFL, a person called Tom Nichols decided that it was time to get something off his chest: “I know my reaction to the Tom Brady coverage is churlish,” said Nichols (Ph.D.), “but it’s also consistent with 40 years of my astonishment that Americans know everything about sports figures but can’t read a goddamn map or name their own member of Congress but who then bitch about democracy.”
It is not clear to me whether Nichols’s description (perfectly accurate, I think) of his own views was occasioned by something he had previously said. The good professor seems to issue hundreds of tweets per day, and I did not wish to subject The American Conservative’s admirable and cultivated young editorial staffers to the dreary work of finding out what, if anything, Nichols had already said about the soon-to-be-former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback.
What Nichols seems to be suggesting is that there is something wrong with the fact that many Americans are aware that, say, Jonathan Taylor is the 2021 rushing leader but do not know that the House Minority Leader is a fellow named Kevin McCarthy. I am not familiar with any public polling that attempts to compare knowledge of or interest in professional football with the Schoolhouse Rock understanding of politics whose absence Professor Nichols laments, but my sense is that many millions of Americans will find themselves on the receiving end of his implied censure.
But what is he actually complaining about? Is it really such a strange thing to think that for the vast majority of people in this country, football is simply more important than politics, especially in the narrow electoral sense of the word? Readers of this website are far more likely to be interested in politics than the average American, but I would pose to them the following question: When was the last time an action or decision made by a member of Congress—your own representative in the House or any other—meaningfully altered you and your family? I suspect that very few would be able to answer the question, and that even fewer still would say that an elected official had done anything in living memory that inspired joy, awe, longing, envy or any of the other emotions (save perhaps despair) that millions of us experience weekly, indeed even hourly, during football season.
A good Marxist (as opposed to a bad one, like Oliver Stone, who adores the game) could do an opiate of the masses number on pro football and suggest that the NFL exists in order to distract the workers from the reality of their alienation. But what this sort of thing tends to miss is the fact that most of the workers—or at any rate those who have not already left the labor force permanently during the last two years anyway—are not particularly interested in being reminded of their fundamental relation to capital and prefer the stupor of a Matthew Stafford comeback drive to, say, explaining to Susan from H.R. that they will complete the required Inclusion Works™ training the next time they log on to Zoom. Besides, so much of what once made up politics in the pre-liberal sense—regional and local (or tribal) loyalties, bonds, symbols, watchwords, taboos, curses, most of them fideistic and, when subjected to even the most cursory analysis, absurd—is now occupied entirely by football.
This is to say nothing of the fact that politics in the sense meant by Professor Nichols is something its followers mostly enjoy at precisely the level on which football fans engage with their sport. Being “informed” does not mean understanding why it is that store shelves are empty or being able to make the case for giving nuclear weapons to Ukraine (one of the esteemed professor’s hobby horses); it means watching the Red Team beat the Blue Team and vice versa.
I for one think that the storylines, characters, and incidents provided by the National Football League are more interesting than those on offer from Washington, which is why I have stopped reading the news since I left my job as a daily political columnist. As soon as I no longer had any professional reasons to know that there are 222 Blue congressman to the Red Team’s 212, I stopped caring entirely.
Occasionally one meets someone who once followed sports very closely but has for whatever reason fallen away from it. I have a good friend whose memories of the National Football League are mostly of the Bears during the end of Lovie Smith’s tenure as head coach, and of the various bad Redskins quarterbacks of the same era. I think about him when I find myself asking, in blissful ignorance, whatever happened to Lamar Alexander and whether Louie Gohmert is up for the Hall of Fame yet. The answer would not be forthcoming at my local bar, where all the regulars will be celebrating what as far as we are concerned amounts to a vicarious Lions Super Bowl appearance for the next two weeks.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.