Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Politics and Sport...both sliding away from their gentlemanly heritage

I enjoy sports, always have. I have always enjoyed playing sports and there are many sports I have enjoyed watching, particularly ice hockey. As I age, however, I find my interest in sports waning. In particular I find little joy in watching sports on TV anymore, and my interest in participating in team sports has all but disappeared. This is not a result of a middle-aged beer gut (I don't have one) or of slowing down too much to be competitive (I think I can still outperform most young people in their physical prime). Part of the loss of interest, at least in sports on TV, is the constant barrage of marketing, something for which I have no time in life. Marketing is so pervasive on sports broadcasts these days that it is unavoidable. Gone are the days when you could walk out of the room for a refreshment or bathroom break when the commercials come on. Now, television, and particularly sports broadcasts, include marketing at every turn. The playing surfaces, and even uniforms in some cases, are littered with corporate logos. Every instant replay is sponsored by a corporation. Each half-time or pre-game show is "brought to you by" someone who wants you to buy their product. Marketing is a big turn off for me, so I've largely tuned out sports on TV. But there is another, more important factor that turns me off sports both on TV and in real life, and that is the unsportsmanlike conduct that is now often considered the norm. In the past, my perception of sports was that a set of official rules governed the game, but there were also a set of unofficial rules that governed the conduct of the players. It was understood that you were in competition to find out who would win within the set of rules. Now, the only thing that matters is winning. Now, most athletes, both professional and recreational, would rather cheat and win, or act in an unsportsmanlike manner and win, than act professionally and courteously and lose. Coaches who subcribe to this philosophy abound. "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," is a well known quote in professional sports (which likely originates from Henry Russell Sanders but was made most popular by Vince Lombardi. Really though? Winning is the only thing? Would you really rather win and see four or five opponents (and teammates perhaps) end up in the hospital, than lose and have everyone walk away at the end of the game and go home to their families? My personal philosophy on this is the exact opposite of this quote. Sportmanslike conduct is everything. Winning within that conduct is very important.

I am no fan of C.S. Lewis's Christian writings, but his children books are generally well-written. In the last of his Narnia Septet, there is a scene in which Eustace Scrub, a young boy caught in a sword battle, yells insults at his enemies after they perform a particularly dastardly act. His leader, King Tirian hushes Eustace, and explains that an honorable warrrior has only two forms of communication with his enemies: courteous words or hard knocks. I have always felt that is an appropriate approach to the sporting arena as well.

Ice hockey is my sport of preference. It is a highly skilled and fast-paced sport. It requires teamwork, good skating skills, and a deep understanding of tactical skills to be successful at. But, there is a darker side to hockey as well. For some reason, likely historical, the culture of hockey in North America condones violence as a means to resolve conflict. Fighting is essentially allowed in ice hockey, with some relatively light penalites for the combatants. Fighting has always had its place in hockey and, while I think it does not belong in any sport, it has seemed to fit into the culture more respectfully than one might imagine. The players have typically understood that there is a time and a place for a fight, and that fighting demands accountability for generally clean play. But lately, an even nastier, dirtier, and more violent side of the game has reared its ugly head. Plays made with the intent to injure an opponent have become commonplace. Coaches have subscribed whole-heartedly to the maxim: "Winning is the only thing." If an opponent ends up in hospital, or having to take significant time off due to injury, or even having to prematurely end their career then, oh well, so long as we won the game it's just fine. An example of this was the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the culmination of two months of playoffs that results in the crowning of the Stanley Cup, hockey's holy grail, which hockey players spend a lifetime pursuing. Last season the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks faced off in the Stanley Cup Finals. One of the themes that emerged from this series of seven hockey games was Boston's willingness to do anything to win, even if it bent or broke the rules, and certainly if it involved unsportsmanlike conduct. Several players did end up in the hospital. At least three or four Vancouver players required surgery, including one for a broken back. In the end Boston won. I'm sure they figured it was worth it. I'm sure other teams in the league that watched from the sidelines figured that their model of play was one worth eminating if it resulted ultimately in victory. I didn't. Had I been a Boston Bruin fan or even a player, I would have felt that I had cheapened the sport. I would have felt unsportsmanlike. This is not all to say that only the Boston players behaved unsportsmanlike. Many of the Vancouver players also did so, but that is not my point in this example. My point is that winning was worth behaving that way for the Boston players. Nothing else mattered, so long as they won. I would have felt like my family was disappointed in me, not proud for me winning. I would much rather lose gracefully than win through unsportsmanlike conduct.

I find there are many analogies between sport and politics and this shift seems to also be occuring in politics. I firmly believe that democratic political systems, when they were originally established, where intended to give everyone an equal voice, and then to make decisions based on the majority of opinions, assuming that everyone who cast their voice did so in an informed manner. Playing within the rules, and within the bounds of politicalmanlike (is that a word?) conduct. More than almost anything in life, I value the opportunity for everyone to have their voice heard. I hate scenarios in which people are cut off mid-sentence by someone who can shout more loudly. Inclusiveness is key to democracy. Opposition voices are an important part of the process. Not just to be heard and then disregarded, but to be heard, debated honestly, and then to contribute to the overall process of decision making.

That process never happens in politics anymore. In Canada at least, decisions are made based on party-loyal vote casting. Members of Parliament (MPs) are often asked (told) to vote along party lines to match a decision already made by the party leader, before any debate has taken place in the House of Commons. Why have the debate at all? (Indeed, I worry that that is a step we may end up taking in our political system).

An example of this approach is a decision that will be made in the coming two years here in Canada. There is a proposal, by a corporate oil giant, to build an oil pipeline from Northern Alberta to Northern British Columbia to ship Albertan oil to Asian markets (i.e. China). Currently, a process of hearing both sides of the debate on this controversial project has begun. A government body will, for the next two years, hear voices from both sides of the table. On the one side, the very well funded oil corporations will lobby the government for the economical benefits this project will undoubtedly bring. On the other side, poorly funded environmental groups, Aboriginal peoples, and local communities will lobby for their voice to be heard on the issues of safety, health, and environmental destruction. What is interesting in this process is that, already, before the process has even begun, both the Prime Minister of Canada (Stephen Harper) and one of his cabinet members, have spoken out against those with an agenda to stop the pipeline project from happening. The Prime Minister has said that those with an environmental agenda have "hijacked" the process. His cabinet minister has essentially said that those who are against the pipeline are "radicals." So where is the debate? How can the government have made a decision, in the best interests of all Canadians (not just those who voted for the current government), without having heard one day of debate from either side of the table? The decision is already made. Mark my words. The pipeline will be built, no question about it. Billions of dollars of money will win out over clean water, potential oil spills off the coast, and the destruction of Aboriginal culture everytime.

The process is rotten. Voices are not being heard. Unsportsmanlike conduct is the rule of the day in the modern political arena. What is most alarming about the above example is the classifying of one set of voices in a debate as "radical" or as having "hijacked the process with their agenda" as though they have no right to be heard in the debate. You can almost hear King Tirian scolding the Prime Minister now. But, the distinction I would draw that I suspect most of my fellow citizens would not, is that I don't believe all politicians fall into this category of win at all costs. Indeed in Canada, I would even go so far as to say that I find the win at all costs is relatively specific to the Conservative Party. In one of the leadership debates in the most recent election in spring of 2011, Stephen Harper kept referring to the bickering of the opposition parties in the House of Commons everytime his government took any action. Finally, in frustration, Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada at the time, told Harper that it is not bickering it is democracy. Sadly, he sounded like a tired old man whining and complaining, and it only served to illustrate to voters what Harper was saying. But, the point is, Ignatieff seemed to understand that there was a process that should be followed, that debate and dissent were part of the process. As much as he wanted to be Prime Minister, he didn't give me the impression that he would sell his own mother to do so. But even more noteable in his respect of the process before his untimely death was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Jack Layton. Layton spent a long time as a city councillor in Canada's biggest city before becoming elected to parliament and eventually becoming leader of the official opposition. I suspect the council type approach to decision making had a profound impact on his approach to politics. City councils tend to run much more like democracy should, with voices being heard and then decisions being made, than do federal politics in which the leader typically decides everything based simply on policy or party agenda. Jack Layton seemed to really have the interests of Canadians at heart. Unfortunately, perhaps because he was such a genuine person, he was attacked harshly by other parties, notably the Conservatives, as someone who was only interested in raising taxes on Canadians. Again, smeer your opponent with untruths and win at all costs.

Winning is the only thing. That is a scary proposition. The only thing. That is not to say that it is the most important thing, that somehow, if you could add up all the other things, they might be of equal value in their summation as winning is. No, it is the only thing. The other issues not only don't matter, they don't even exist. Nothing else matters at all. Hearing the voices of your opponents does not matter because it might interfere with you winnning the next election.

I dream of a government and political process that would respect the process more than winning. A party that would prefer to see the process of democracy continue in its best form than gain power themselves. A leader that recognizes that mis-representing another party's leader in an attack ad is actually counter-productive to the process of democracy, effective though it may be.

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