College Football and Political Speech: A Worrisome if Not Terrifying Indicator of the Tenor of Out Times

In the past, sports have always brought people together. Even if you were on opposite sides of the stadium, even if you were locked into a bitter rivalry, you were united by the passions of the moment, part of a tapestry of shared exuberance, sacrifice, and excellence.
As the syndicated columnist George Will once observed,  “Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” It’s obvious now, for at least some college football fans, that Will was referring strictly to the play on the field, and not the political views of the people in the stands. 

Across our fair land, college students now not only root for the home team and boo the opponent, but make their displeasure to President Biden known in no uncertain terms, shouting “F— Joe Biden” as a sort of chant.

Some college football fans voice their displeasure with President Joe Biden in a not-so-subtle way Source:

As reported by Fox News, there were “. . . at least four instances of the chant “F— Joe Biden!” at college football games during the weekend of Sept. 4, 2021.” This display of vitriol has broken out at Coastal Carolina University, Virginia Tech, Auburn University, and Texas A&M, as well as the University of Mississippi, threatening to consume our nation as politics pervade every aspect of our culture and color all of intereactions.

Writing for FanSided, Patrick Schmidt wryly points out, “While it’s not too surprising to see fans in noted Red states show no favor toward a democratic president, this type of chant is a new thing. It used to be that people hated when politics and sports mixed. Now? It’s very much encouraged by some to mix politics and sports. Who knows when this chant will stop or if it will continue to spread around the southeast.”

Apparently,  Donald Trump Jr. doesn’t believe this new level of coarseness is going away,  stating the Biden presidency has “gotten so bad that the media can’t run cover for him anymore,” adding “I imagine the chants will continue because, guess what, folks, it’s not getting any better until we say, ‘enough is enough.’”

And though the sheer size of the crowd creates a sort of collective anonymity, unlike social media, these fans can’t be conveniently controlled. As Paul Mbagwu writes, “Stadiums are one place where crowds of people cannot be censored, unlike social media platforms that will shadow ban or de-platform users for speaking their minds.”

And while I have always championed free speech and even supported those who I vehemently disagreed with, the level of crudeness in these chants are emblematic of a worrisome dynamic: the coarsening of our political talk as a whole. 

It’s important to understand that I do not blame college students. They are young and caught up in the moment, and many I assume have genuine convictions and are earnestly concerned about the direction of our country. (I’m not sure I would have been any different when I was in college.)

I share their frustrations and concerns, and I won’t advocate for some type of mass gag mandate to silence their outcry, no matter how odious the message or tone. Still, I do ask for everyone to take a step back and look at the madness we are creating. As The Washington Times points out, “It is not just the disgusting nature of such remarks that should offend. We are not each other’s enemies. We are fellow Americans, who sometimes disagree, but ought to do so with some level of respect for each other.”

This plunge in the quality of our oratory is not limited to sporting events or social media outlets. Rather, there has been a decidedly marked drop in what should be the crowning event of all political rhetoric: our 2020 national political conventions. Although it’s easy to dismiss the conventions as a collection of pretty slogans and lofty ideals dressed in the clothing of inflated metaphors and neatly polished rhetorical flourishes, it goes deeper than that.

A recent Politico article captures this essence: “ In general, there haven’t been crackling new slogans, or fresh metaphors to capture the state of contemporary America, or crisp phrases that keep repeating and finally culminate in a roaring crescendo. There have been few attempts at such rhetorical acrobatics, and those few attempts have not been memorable.” 

Of course, you could make the argument that these conventions were virtual, and therefore lack the energy and vitality characteristic of live, fully-attended events. But further examination reveals that supposition is not enough.

Speechwriters craft their speeches long beforehand, and it is their job to find the energy, to identify the unfifying ideas that inspire and change hearts, not just rile up their political base. This scarceness of rhetorical refinement speaks to a lack of imagination, imagination that is undergirded by a sense that there is something bigger than all of us, a uniting force that transcends differences, both petty and great, regardless of how it is delivered. As noted Republican speechwriter Michael Gerso warns, “Any speechwriter who uses these constraints [of technology or social distancing] to claim a speech can’t be memorable is … not very good at his or her job.” 

It’s not difficult to see how a dip in the oratory quality of political leaders would translate into a coarsening of our overall political discourse. This is not a phenomenon lost upon the American public. A 2019 Pew Research Poll shows that “Large majorities say the tone and nature of political debate in the United States has become more negative in recent years – as well as less respectful, less fact-based and less substantive.”  

To be fair, the same poll found that a 55% majority believe Trump has changed the tone and nature of political debate in this country for the worse. I’m not sure you can argue against this finding. Part of the Trump charm, for lack of a better word, was his unabashed an unadorned language that cut through the diatribe and sometimes nauseating pretension and hypocrisy of elitist leftists who simultaneously cry out in the name “wokeness” and “inclusivity” even while exhorting their sycophants to “create a crowd and . . .push back on them. . .tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” 

And while Trump certainly exposed this pretension and hypocrisy, he also dragged us down into the equivalent of political Mordor where some of us were transformed from Sméagols into Gollums.

Yet, if we are going to blame all our woes on technology or the vulgarness of one man for the state of political communication, we are nothing more than a nation of petulant children, each stamping the ground while we point our fingers at each other, ever confident that the ills consuming our country fall squarely and solely on the shoulders of those we label as the “problem,” the true repository for the disease that is eating away the common ideals that used to connect us in fundamental ways.

The end result is a sort of political reductionism that renders us as reflexive shibboleths, a type of entrenched group think that makes real communication,  and therefore, progress, impossible. 

In the article, The Triumph Of Emotion Over Reason, Zachary Yost captures this ugly dynamic eloquently:

“The shibboleths differ, but at the end of the day people on both the left and right have fallen into this trap, as both Antifa and the alt-right have demonstrated. Political discourse for those groups neglects communication meant to argue or persuade in favor of scoring points amongst their own groups. For the alt-right, this usually involves endless internet trolling about race and “cucks,” and for Antifa it usually takes the form of condemning various injustices and oppressions using the terminology of critical theory. The minute someone from either group opens his mouth the other side stops listening. The end result is that no meaningful and persuasive communication is possible.” 

So, yes, I understand, the frustration of people, and I think their sentiments should be heard loud and clear by whoever occupies the oval office. But, cannot we reach a little deeper into our wells of intelligence and say something that both expresses our anger while also piquing the imagination of our would-be brothers and sisters?

Can we not find a way to appeal to each other’s better natures than f-bombs and threats? At the 2014 Democratic Convention,  President Obama famously said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America.”  

Even if you didn’t believe in and support Barack Obama, and even if you believe he failed in his efforts to materialize his own words, can we not at least make the effort to live up to them?

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