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February 1st, 2014
02:17 PM ET

On the line of scrimmage: Football and politics

By CNN's Deena Zaru [twitter-follow screen_name='DeenaZeinaCNN']

A political primary in America is much like football season. Top players are chosen through a series of nominations, caucuses and conventions, or in other words, an organized recruiting process. Once the field is narrowed and the top players are positioned as starters, it’s a jumble of fumbles, interceptions, setbacks and small victories until the top two candidates make it to the general election—the Super Bowl.

Even our democratic system operates with the same values and the same mechanisms as the game that captures the hearts of millions and millions of Americans.

Last year about 33.5 million Americans watched the President’s State of the Union address, while 108 million watched the Super Bowl, becoming the third most watched program in television history.

As some lose interest in watching the State of the Union, with this year’s address drawing 5 million less viewers than in 2012, the two most watched events in American television history are the 2012 Super Bowl, viewed by 111.3 million, and the 2010 Super Bowl, which scored 111 million viewers.

While the two events are intrinsically a part of the American tradition, football is the unrivaled captor of the hearts of Americans.

In his book, “What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports,” former Senator George Allen of Virginia tells us “There’s a reason you like sports more than politics. It’s because sports makes sense and Washington doesn’t.”

Allen was deeply immersed in both worlds. As the son of legendary NFL coach George H. Allen, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, he also played football for the University of Virginia. He served in the House of Representatives, the Senate and as the governor of Virginia (1994-1998).

“Like football, politics is a way for collaboration, compromise and team work but our politics are divisive, based on conflict, based on competition and frankly, lots of us across the country are fed us with a lot of the negativity,” said Eric Bain-Selbo, the author of “Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South.”

The American political stage is defined by a clash of conflicting views about what it means to be an American—do we believe in big or small government? Do we believe in fiscal conservatism or in the government’s duty to provide for its citizens? Is there a place for religion in our identity? Do we prioritize personal privacy and civil liberties or national security? Do we take on the role of defender of the free world or do we focus on our internal conflicts?

“Politics divide us but what football does is it brings people together to form one community and can help us transcend race issues, class divisions and political divisions,” said Bain-Selbo. “It reminds is that we have something in common.”

Despite that, Bain-Selbo noted sports can also cover up intrinsic problems of inequality in society by reflecting an idealized sense of community. Even though a wealthy businessman can talk to a gas station clerk about the big game coming up, each person is compensated very differently for their work and while many teams are racially diverse, even composed of a majority of African Americans players, racism still exists in the community.

“In football we see the idea that the nation itself becomes the object of worship and around that object of worship there are a certain set of beliefs that unite Americans and the Super Bowl is the ultimate ritual,” said Bain-Selbo. “Football says something about our rugged nature, the violence, our willingness to make sacrifices… The implicit message in football is that conflict and competition are a part of our nature as Americans.”

Bain-Selbo writes that football, like religion, connects a person to their home, to a place, to a set of beliefs and gives people a sense of belonging.

“In a culture where we have so much physical mobility we all need that sense of place of being grounded somewhere of being at home. We have a psychological need as humans to be a part of community, to be bound to a place—a home that helps us remember who we are.”

Bain-Selbo, who grew up in Nashville, feels especially connected to the world of college football in the south. Even though he now lives in Kentucky where he serves as the Department Head of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Western Kentucky, following the Tennessee Titans allows him a connection to his home.

“When I root for the University of Tennessee, l have a powerful sense of identity associated with it because that campus was my home and Tennessee is still the state I call home and the University of Tennessee represents that for me,” said Bain-Selbo.

And to some, baseball, basketball or soccer function in the same way. While football can bring Americans together nationally, sports have the power to unite the people on an international level.

British author Terry Pratchett famously wrote in his book “Unseen Academicals” about the power of the game: “The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.” Being from the United Kingdom, he was referring to soccer of course, but here in the United States, this couldn’t be truer.

“Football reminds us what it means to be an American… it’s a part of our collective identity,” said Bain-Selbo. “The Super Bowl is this great American event that goes far beyond Denver fans and Seattle fans. Even if you don’t follow football throughout the year, millions of people are going to watch because that’s what you do. That’s what you do as an American.”

CNN's Ellen Van de Mark contributed to this post.

Filed under: Peanut Gallery • State of the Union
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