14 March 2014 (updated Jan 2017)
What the USA Can Learn about Political Discourse from MLB and the NFL (and Bill Veeck, George Halas and Research at Facebook)
I’ve just finished reading Bill Veeck’s three terrific memoirs and Paul Dickson’s beautifully researched and written autobiography of him. I now appreciate why Chicago historian Kenan Heise sees Veeck as the most underrated major figure in Chicago. (Heise calls Daniel Burnham the most overrated figure because his idea of Chicago as the City Beautiful overshadowed Jane Addams’ concept of Chicago as the City Livable. The latter is is described by historian Janice Metzger in What Would Jane Say.
OK, so back to Veeck, who realized that the principles of building loyal, engaged communities of sports fans (and citizens) are not separate but identical. These principles include respect for all fans (of home and visiting teams), an intense desire to listen to and learn from them, an endless drive to meet their needs and engage with them, and above all a commitment to dealing honorably with them. That was the heart and soul of Bill Veeck.
So with Veeck in mind I started thinking about how pro sports teams use mass media to build communities of loyal, devoted fans. This led me to George Halas’s Halas by Halas, a no-nonsense autobiography that makes you proud to be a Chicagoan. Halas didn’t just create the Bears, he created the NFL. And he did so with the same sense of honor and devotion to his sport that Veeck devoted to his sport (and to horseracing!). Parity? Where baseball scoffed at it despite Veeck’s tireless campaigns to implement it, the NFL was the first to implement it.
Add to this the NFL’s masterful use of mainstream and online media to establish the dominant and quasi-patriotic presence nationwide.
Here and elsewhere I’ve argued that what sports media do day in and day out for sports fans, civic media can do day in and day out – and profitably so – for all Chicagoans: create a political culture that facilitates dynamic, ongoing and constructive citizen interactions between citizens and City Hall that are governed, as sports are, by universally accepted rules of the game.
It’s these rules, consistently and fairly enforced with the help of verification technologies like multi-angle, slo-mo instant replays that help engender fan trust. Add to this the code of conduct that these rules develop and you have the basis of what Americans want (and yearn) see in place in the political sphere if ever they are going to overcome their pervasive (and entirely well-founded) mistrust of the enterprise of American politics and government.
2016 Update: You say this will never happen? That restoring faith and trust in American politics is like getting the sun to set in the east? Think again. American may soon have no choice but to do so.
To see why, check our this September 2016 USA Today story about Problems Unsolved and a Nation Divided, a Harvard Business School study conducted by a team headed by Michael Porter, whom Forbes Magazine rated in 2015 as the #1 Business thinker in the world. This from the USA story:
What “just really hit” Porter and his team is what hit tens of millions of Americans 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Just compare the amazingly low US voter turnout rates with rates of other democracies.
OK, end of future time warp and back to America can learn from the NFL. Here we turn to the findings of Research at Facebook based and their vizualization of data gleaned solely from Facebook users nationwide. Check out the four maps below. Where the first two show American cities and regions, the last two, From Facebook, illustrate the ties that exist between NFL fans and their teams. From them, you’ll see someyou can see how how American cities and regions might one day cooperate (and compete) with each other much as NFL teams – and more than this the NFC and AFC divisions of the NFL – compete and cooperate (in serving the NFL) with each other.
Cooperation? Consider. The NFL’s 16 regular season games lead to a series of playoff games culminating in what has become arguably America’s most unifying and patriotic moment: the Super Bowl. Last year it was seen by 111 million viewers, about one out of every three Americans. Sports writer Pat Imig illustrated his lively post on “Why American Football is More American than the American Government” with this photo:
Now let’s look at the two maps of America’s regions: regions which might one day be connected by a Civic Media dedicated to doing for all American regions what sports media do for (and with) American pro football teams:
- Serve regional interests by enabling governments and citizens within each region to shape that region’s best future,
- Serve regional and national interests by enabling regions to cooperate even as they compete, much in the same way that NFL teams cooperate in advancing the interests of the NFL. Bear in mind that the NFL itself competes and cooperates as well with other sports leagues: Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the Major Soccer League (MSL).
Regions? They range from simple to complex. Here first is a simple six-region map (below) used by Mrs. Finley to teach her 5th grade geography class in Scottsdale, Arizona:
Now compare the seven regions in Mrs. Finley’s map with the eleven regions, or “nations” in this one:
This map depicts the eleven so-called nations in historian Colin Woodard’s “Call to Arms” piece appearing in the Tufts University magazine last December. This is an amazing pice. It shows how the roots of America’s bitter and divisive national debate over gun violence can be traced back to settlement patterns of colonists, of all things, going back to the earliest days of American history.
Woodard’s capsule histories of these eleven “nations” – ten of them colonizing nations, one a native American nation – thrown light on why Americans today are so polarized not just on the issue of gun control but on matters of immigration, abortion, prayer in schools, and states rights too. Reading Woodard, one might get the feeling that the differences among regions are insuperable: Americans, in other words, will always be fighting the Civil War.
But not necessarily. To see why, let’s look at two maps that depict America as an NFL Nation united and energized by loyalty to its pro football teams. Here, from deadspin.com, is a map of regions by fan base:
This map of NFL nation drills down to the county level:
So where does all this lead us? Into uncharted territory, for sure. It’s a territory of possible great rewards and altogether certain risks. Sailing into these waters will be the task of a subsequent post.
Until then, this final photo of Bill Veeck, a wise man and one of Chicago’s and baseball’s greats: