John Robson: Go Oilers Go: The Merits of Sports Compared to Politics

John Robson: Go Oilers Go: The Merits of Sports Compared to Politics
Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse (L) and Florida Panthers centre Evan Rodrigues fight for position during the second period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Sunrise, Fla., on June 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
John Robson
How ‘bout them Oilers? A Canadian team finally reaches the finals in our national sport, only the sixth in 30 years, and with our usual passion for the bronze we’re almost as excited as when our soccer team plays a scoreless tie with mighty France. And if you ask who cares what these overpaid man-boys do, I reply that normal people find them a lot more interesting and admirable than politicians.

Yes, I’m sufficiently obsessed with public affairs to know an associate minister from a deputy one. And I claim everyone should study government because, as Trotsky said of strategy, you may not be interested in politics, but it’s interested in you. The state can compel you on everything from photo radar to the capital gains tax, and has a habit of dealing out nasty surprises as power corrupts, so you’d better beware. But you won’t have much to cheer about.

Sports, by contrast, can show us humanity at its finest when talent, dedication, and teamwork achieve seemingly impossible feats. Triumph over tragedy, improbable underdogs, and victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Or consider Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who seemed to have it all including preposterous good looks, but couldn’t win the big game… until he did at age 37 with the calendar as well as the clock running down. Surely sweeter than early success.

Not everyone agrees. Cornell’s president famously spiked an 1874 football-team trip with, “I refuse to let 40 of our boys travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind.” Sports can seem childish, a waste of time, or worse. The great black American leader Booker T. Washington wrote, “I have never seen a game of football. In cards I do not know one card from another.” But he also never took vacations and said wistfully, “I suppose I would care for games now if I had had any time in my youth to give to them.”

We cannot all be professional athletes, no matter what rubbish they peddle in schools about becoming anything you dream of. Boston Celtics hall-of-fame power forward Kevin McHale was barely 6’10” but had relatively long arms, which undoubtedly helped him do stuff I never could have. Still, we can all use the character attributes that make for athletic success to improve our lives and those of our fellows.

For instance Robert Parish, McHale’s hall-of-fame teammate at centre and the oldest man to win a championship: “You play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of the jersey.” It may seem less true of, say, tennis. But Rudyard Kipling’s “If” applies to the solo and team athlete, and vice versa.

As does “If not,” because sports also illustrate habits and dispositions that prevent success or bring the wrong kind for the wrong reasons. (Ty Cobb springs to mind, and Brittney Griner. It isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play and why.) Fame and money can also corrupt, and athletic success tends perilously to precede maturity. But so does success in war, and the similarities between a sports and military “band of brothers” are especially strong and important.

Including dangers such as tribalism. While at grad school at the University of Texas at Austin, it struck me that students who might just as easily have gone to Texas A&M often seemed most hyped about our rivalry with the hated “Aggies.” Whereas if the Longhorns couldn’t win something I’d favour another local team, including them. And above all an outstanding contest. So with the ultra-talented Maple Leafs having folded ignominiously yet again, I’m pulling for the other Canadian team, but not pulling against the Florida Panthers.

Incidentally, some fellow graduate students griped that the athletes got better treatment in residence, including actual food, not “Grade D chicken – Edible.” (Seriously, on a “Hot Lips” nuggets crate.) But I said if you could pack 75,000 screaming fans into a stadium to watch me ponder the War of 1812, including actual or potential alumni donors, I’d be eating steak too. And the more I see of academia and politics, the less I resent the popularity of sports.

I actually think someone should write a thesis on how teams like the Leafs achieve such enduring futility despite all that talent and money. Or the old baseball Washington Senators (“First in war, first in peace, last in the American League”). Possibly someone needs to exorcise the ghost of Harold Ballard. Or Pierre Trudeau, as Canadians should reflect on the bitter fruit of deliberately discarding the virtues that make for success on and off the field … and the ice.

Sometimes a team’s success helps rally a troubled community, like the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 comeback World Series. Other times it just reminds us of the eternal verities.

So go Oilers go.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”