An Opiate For Every Season

In a recent piece on the president in Vanity Fair, journalist Michael Lewis discovered that Barack Obama keeps the television set on Air Force One tuned, not to MSNBC, not to CNN, certainly not to FOX, but to ESPN, “the place for sports.” According to Lewis, the president considers the relentless partisanship of the cable channels “toxic.” That they certainly are.

Allow me to suggest to the president that cable channel toxicity can come in many forms, and that perhaps, just perhaps, the ESPN channel of which he is so enamored may be the most toxic of them all.

Consider that recently the Arab world verged on complete chaos. The national unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent. Student loan debt grew. The national debt soared beyond the $16 trillion mark. A fiscal cliff loomed.

So what dominated the national discussion? The National Football League referees’ strike and that gawdawful call on the Hail Mary pass caught by the Green Bay Packer defender but credited to Seattle Seahawk receiver. The United States of Fandom screeched. All of Wisconsin grew apoplectic. I’ll bet even our ESPN-watching president muttered an expletive.

Karl Marx famously opined that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” Marx died in 1883; he never knew the NFL, the NBA or the MLB. Whatever your politics, whatever your religion, sports in America provide an opiate for every season.

And it’s a better high than religion. Religion is loaded with mystery, ambiguity, faith. Not sport. Your team wins or your team loses. It’s all played within the lines. It’s about the coach and the players on the field. There’s a purity to sports as an opiate, and fans grow very upset when their opiate is adulterated — by bad referees, or by administrators, both academic and athletic, who screw up. Witness the brouhaha in Hawaii over the never-to-be Stevie Wonder concert. Simply put, somebody with a Florida bank account snookered the university and its cash-strapped athletic program out of $200,000.

When the snooker was realized, we got a lesson in administrative coverup and ineptitude, political interference, scapegoating, stonewalling and our obsession with college sports. Our preoccupation with the success and failures of the University of Hawaii’s teams is out of all proportion to our concern with the university as a whole.

M.R.C. Greenwood knows that, so too do complicitous politicians, regents, assignment editors, athletic boosters — indeed, all of us in the world of University of Hawaii fandom. UH sports, the only Division I game in town, is the university’s shortest, widest bridge to the community. It’s our neighborhood sports opiate, whether we can afford it or not.

Yes, Mr. President, a sports channel also can poison us.