Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sports and Ideology - An Uneasy Intersection

Summary: Laura Craft Hogensen explains her frustration with Tim Tebow's pro-life ad that will air during the Superbowl.

For many Americans, Sunday is a day of worship, a day to attend church services, a day of prayer and reflection. For the past decade, the Gallup Poll has shown that about 40% of people in this country attend some sort of church service during the weekend. Though this number has dropped siginificantly from the level that it was in the late 80's and early 90's, worship and the act of worship is still a significant part of many Americans' lives. And the religion that most citizens in the US practice is still Christianity. As of 2008, 76% of Americans polled identified themselves as Christian. Though this number used to be much greater (86% in 1990), still, over three quarters of people in this country consider themselves to be Christian.

We've all heard these statistics, or something like them before. All citizens in the United States, whether politically active or not, are aware, on some level, of the religious divisions that exist in this country. And frankly, I hate talking about them. I hated even looking up the statistics on faith for this blog post. The argument for or against different types of faiths and ideologies bores me. I feel that it's impossible to sway people on issues of faith or ideology because these issues are so personal, and so close to the self. Why waste time and energy trying to convince "the other side," that you are right and they are wrong? No ground is ever gained in battles of religion, ideology, and politics. There's a reason why these three topics have been banned as polite dinner table conversation.

But, if three of the largest issues are eliminated because of impropriety, what can there be to talk about? How can Americans fill the void of conversation that occurs during business lunches, happy hours, dinners and first dates? The answer is simple and all-encompassing: Sports.

Sports is the great uniter. When watching a game or discussing a team, no attention is paid to one's politcal or religious beliefs. The questions and answers are equally complex and nuanced - one need only recall the furious speculation that occurs before the Major League Baseball trading deadline - but anyone can participate in the discussion. People of all religions and political persuasions come together to pull for the same team. In many ways, spending time on Sunday afternoon watching a game with friends and strangers, rooting for a team together, and celebrating a victory, is a communion just as powerful as the one found during a church service.

That's what I've always liked about sports. Its universality, the passion it inspires - and the values it promotes. Sports has taught me that the actions of one can affect the outcome of all. It's taught me to be strong, to persevere in the face of adversity. I've learned that all people on a team can and do contribute to a team's success and failure - that we each have a role to play, and that the best kind of success is earned through hard work. These lessons, these values, do not appear on stone tablets, but they have shaped me and others to be just as decent and moral as those who were molded by faith.

In a way, sports has been a kind of refuge for me. A way to avoid arguments of politics or religion. A way to connect to others without worrying about who I might offend. No matter what was happening with the health care bill, or what Pat Robertson said about Haiti, or how Prop 8 was voted on, the world of sports was a neutral territory where ideologies were left off the field, and for that, I was grateful.

Perhaps this is why I'm more upset than usual over the pro-life ad starring Tim Tebow and his mother that is scheduled to air on CBS during the Superbowl. By making the decision to air this ad (produced by Focus on the Family), CBS has not only chosen to align itself politically and ideologically, but it has tarnished the neutrality that sports provided. It has taken away my refuge.

This is not the first time that a network has been asked to air a political or ideological commercial during the Super Bowl - the biggest night for television viewership during the year. In 2009, NBC made the decision to reject a similar pro-life ad that alluded to newly elected president Barack Obama. Like the Tebow ad, the Obama pro life ad, which was produced by CatholicVote, asks the question, "What if this child had not been born?" and then urges the viewer to "imagine the potential of life." At the time, many pro life groups protested NBC's decision, while NBC countered that it had also rejected the issue-based PETA ad as well. In 2008, presidential candidates also made the decision to avoid political ads during the Super Bowl. While Obama chose to buy local advertising in certain states, both he and the other front-runners of both parties decided to leave political talk out of the big game.

CBS has maintained that its decision to air the ad is part of a change in the network's approach towards "advocacy ads" which has occurred in recent years. Spokesperson Dana McClintock states that "most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time," and that "CBS will continue to consider responsibly produced ads from all groups for spots in Super Bowl XLIV."

I should probably divulge that I am pro choice - pretty vehemently so. And, when I first read this story, my main concern was that CBS would be unwilling to give equal time to a pro choice organization, should they want to (and should they have the money to) air an ad. But McClintock's vague statement about equal "consideration" does little to assuage my anger over this. I'm not angry at Focus on the Family or other pro life organizations that support this ad. I'm not angry at Tim Tebow or his mother - their Christianity and their commitment to their faith is deep and real. I'm angry that CBS has chosen to bring politics and religion into one of the few places where it had not yet divided this country. They've chosen a side, and by choosing sides, they have alienated others who do not, who can not, who will never agree. The Super Bowl, for all of its needless pageantry, for all of its encouragement of consumption and overindulgence is a truly American experience. Unlike other holidays like Christmas, it was a celebration that all Americans had in common regardless of faith, politics, or ideology. Yet, it seems on this day, too, we'll be a people divided.

Laura Craft Hogensen is an athlete and an avid political observer. She is married to Eric Hogensen, Principal of Hogensen Strategies Group.

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