Why are we watching?
Don Banks suggests that we don't pay terribly much attention when Brett Favre pursues Dan Marino's all-time touchdown record:
"I'm only going to make this point once and then I'll move on: Starting with the Packers home game against Philadelphia on Sunday, can we please not treat Brett Favre's pursuit of Dan Marino's career record for touchdown passes this season like it's some magical milestone that deserves our rapt attention? Most NFL fans don't even know the number of TD passes that Marino threw (420), or can recall whose record Marino broke (I must admit, I'd have to Google it to find out).
"It's an accomplishment of distinction to be sure. But we tend to over-do everything that involves Favre and have for many years now."
Banks is trying to argue that the media overhypes Favre, but to do so he makes a specious argument. He claims that we shouldn't treat this all-time NFL record "like it's some magical milestone that deserves our rapt attention." I don't quite understand it. I watch football to see great individual accomplishments. Favre would be breaking an all-time record: if he passes Marino, he'll have thrown more TD passes than anybody in the history of the NFL. That's deserving of our attention. Banks says that since "most NFL fans" don't know much about the record, we shouldn't pay attention; I suppose you could argue that "most NFL fans" don't know the names of a lot of offensive linemen, but that doesn't make them insignificant to the game. To the extent that football is worth watching, it's worthing paying attention to, and praising, major accomplishments like an all-time record.
It's not as if the media would be hyping the record just because it is Favre: when Dan Marino was breaking all the career marks in 1995, it was a very big news story that got a lot of coverage. And that's as it should be (I'm surprised that Banks, paid to cover the NFL, doesn't know that it was Fran Tarkenton's record of 346 TDs that Marino broke then, or that Tarkenton passed Johnny Unitas' record of 290. That's from the top of my head. Let's check. Whoops, 342 for Tarkenton). We paid attention when Marino broke Tarkenton's records, just as we paid attention when Emmitt Smith broke Walter Payton's numbers. Just because the number itself doesn't have the significance that a baseball record has doesn't mean that we shouldn't give it attention. I'm actually surprised at how little I've read about Favre's pursuit of Marino's record, considering how much I heard about Marino's pursuit in 1995.
We watch the sport: to the extent that a game is worth our "rapt attention" at all, a player achieving a career accomplishment that nobody else has ever done certainly deserves our attention.
Perhaps we need more
The Straw Man is a logical fallacy: a person using this fallacy doesn't argue against an actual opponent, but distorts an opponent's argument, or even makes up a different argument, and argues against that.
Patrick Reusse appears guilty of a similar tactic. He says that last season
"The Internet responders and callers to talk shows were nearly unanimous in the belief that the 2006 Vikings would top the 9-7 of the previous season."
And that this season,
"You can read and hear predictions of four and five victories from the same Internet and talk-show crowds that foresaw the Vikings sliding past the Chicago Bears in the NFC North a year ago."
That's all fine, but Reusse isn't actually identifying anybody. Were "Internet responders" "unanimous" last season? Are people with pessimistic predictions this season "the same Internet and talk-show crowds"? You'll find a plethora of viewpoints on the internet; I'm not sure there's unanimity, last season or this season, about how the Vikings will do.
I'd like it a lot better if Reusse actually identified who he was arguing against; it's much easier to argue against a viewpoint that you made up for the sake of arguing against, than it is to actually address specific claims made by an opponent (I've criticized Reusse before for making up Viking fan quotes and criticizing Viking fans for them). Reusse is probably addressing a consensus, but he's framing that consensus as he wants to in order to disagree with it as he wants to.
Perhaps there's a place for that: several times I've commented on this site about how many people are predicting the Vikings for a fourth place finish in the NFC North. I could easily provide a bunch of links to prove this, but I haven't deemed it necessary. Though if I'm going to argue against somebody's reasons for thinking the Vikings will suck this year, I won't make up those reasons to argue against (a "straw man")--I'll argue against what that person is actually saying.
Politics and Sports
Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk comments on Matt Hasselbeck alienating some fans by revealing his political views. He concludes that "Football, politics don't mix," and argues that
"The fact is that any effort to blend politics with sports is a mistake. People look to sports as a diversion, and they don't want to hear the political views of folks who have a platform merely because they can run fast and/or throw a ball far -- especially when those political views conflict with their own.
"There's no way for any NFL figure to be openly political without polarizing the paying customers. Thus, we think all players and coaches and league officials and journalists would be wise to keep their politics to themselves while occupying the public spotlight that is available to them only because of sports. "
I both disagree and agree. I tend to agree with Dave Zirin that politics is always in the subtext of sports (it reminds me of graduate school discussions on politics in literature and literary studies--eventually you have to reach the conclusion that literature and the study of literature is, at some level, political). We need not see sports as a "diversion"--we can address the social and political reality of sports. Furthermore, athletes have a First Amendment right to express their political beliefs, and they may feel a moral obligation to use "the public spotlight that is available to them" in order to advocate.
However, I agree with Florio's second paragraph here. Athletes have a First Amendment right to express their views, but they also must be prepared to face the consequences for expressing these views. By expressing a political view, Hasselbeck risks alienating some fans. If he's willing to risk that to express his political views, then he can go for it. He might be better off going milquetoast and not "polarizing the paying customer," but that's still his choice. Personally, I find it difficult to root for an athlete quite so much when I find out he or she has divergent political leanings from my own. I'm a fan of players (that's why I collect football cards), and it always disappoints me when a player is tainted for me because of a political leaning. I'm not saying I'm right to think less of athletes that don't share my politics, but it happens whether I like it or not (if I had total control over my thoughts, my life would be very different than it is).
Politics are a part of sports: that's reality. And people oughtn't be encouraged to hide their convictions, including athletes. But politics are polarizing, and an athlete expressing political views risks polarizing fans, and polarizing them for reasons that actually have nothing to do with sports.