November 3, 2016

Battle of the Sexes, Campaign Style

Since presidential candidates and their surrogates tend to swing through the swing state of Florida, I have the opportunity to attend them on a regular basis. Once was enough for me. It felt like a cheerleading rally before a football game. Since then I have been struck by the similarities between presidential campaigns and sporting events. Last week as I listened to yet another bizarre interaction between the two presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I had a flashback to 1973. The Battle of the Sexes was the epic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign are eerie.


For those of you who weren't alive at the time, let me bring you up to speed. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had already made a huge impact. The Women's Liberation movement was following on its heels. By 1973 it was in full swing. Bobby Riggs was 55 years old, well past the prime of his tennis championship years. He was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig and he boasted that he could beat any woman tennis player. Eventually Billie Jean King, a current world tennis champion, took him up on the challenge. The landmark U.S. legislation called Title IX had just become law in 1972. It recognized women’s and men's equal right to participate in sports. But in 1973, it had not yet been implemented and there was lots of opposition to it.

Riggs made the Battle of the Sexes a sensation with a string of inflammatory remarks leading up to the match. My recollections are vague, so I looked up what he actually said. As a general philosophy, he felt that "women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order." Like Trump, he had total confidence that he would win, "I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability." I find these quotes strikingly similar to many of Donald Trump's remarks while on the campaign trail. They are cut from the same offensive cloth, and they give off the same stench. But of more interest, these statements were made to elicit the same response - stunning media coverage.

Back in 1973, the media pored over every detail of the players' lives. At the time, I did not follow current events at all. I neither watched television news nor read the newspaper. I did not watch sports at all. Even so, the media blitz was so all-encompassing that I knew what each of the players ate for breakfast. And all that sexist banter worked; the match was the most watched tennis match in history. Thirty thousand people filled the Houston Astrodome and an estimated 90 million television viewers tuned in via satellite from 36 countries. I see the same scenario unfolding in the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump has been quite adept at getting the media spotlight, by making racist and sexist remarks. Following Trump's string of incendiary remarks, the first 2016 Presidential Debate was the most watched in the history of U.S. politics, with 84 million viewers.

There's also the aura of hustle that surrounds both men. Undeniably, Bobby Riggs had been a world tennis champion. He may have been outwardly competing to win a tournament, but behind the scenes, he would bet on the outcome of his own matches. On the day of the 1973 match, the unsuspecting spectator might expect him to spend time warming up and getting psyched. In fact, a close friend reported finding Riggs on a tennis court with an umbrella in one hand and a brown dog tied on a leash to his left ankle There were people lined up on the street with their tennis rackets waiting to play Riggs. If they won, they played for free; otherwise they owed Riggs $100. Riggs' brother was collecting the winnings.

Donald Trump is undeniably a businessman. But he, too, resorts to hustling. Trump University appears to have been a scam, operating without an educational license. The Trump Foundation appears to be giving other people's money to charity, rather than Trump money. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits are part and parcel to the way Trump does business. And in the ultimate irony, the American Bar Association recently refused to print their own report which called Donald Trump a libel bully, because they were afraid of being sued! Trump has certainly used the media exposure from his campaign as a marketing platform to promote everything from his golf courses to his new Washington DC hotel. In 2000, Trump predicted that he might be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it. Time and good investigative work will tell if he was correct.

What about the fallout from these competitions. Although it seemed unrelated at the time, I took up tennis with gusto after Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. And it wasn't just me. There was a boom in women's sports following Title IX and King's victory. If Hillary Clinton wins, I can only hope for a similar bounce for women in politics. But in all honesty, there is something truly disturbing when elections have so much in common with sporting events.

When two runners compete, they race.  Political candidates compete in races as well. It is no coincidence that there is linguistic overlap between the two. Competitors in the sports and political arenas all have to obey the rules. There are scoring systems in place. Many times there's a referee. That's because there's a penchant for cheating and cheating makes people fuming mad. So far so good.

Few of us care where an athlete stands on climate change. That's because, even if they win their competition, it will not affect how society responds to climate change. Athletes compete on speed, strength, flexibility, accuracy, how far they can throw an object, how high they can jump, how many goals they make. When it comes to bringing down ISIS, it doesn't really matter which football team wins the game. Sports fans can yell nasty insults at each other until they are hoarse, but it probably won't affect the rate at which jobs leave our community. Spectators in a stadium can paint themselves red or blue and chant slogans, but such team loyalty won't change whether most of us can afford the medical care we need.

If you have ever attended a Democratic or Republican presidential campaign rally or watched one on television, you know that those in attendance cheer, chant slogans, and wear loyalty apparel, much like fans at a sporting event. In 2016, people like to yell "Make America Great Again" or "Stronger Together", but have no interest in a serious policy discussion on how to make that happen or whether that even makes sense. And it really is worse than that. People respond more strongly to negative campaigning any day of the week. "Lock Her Up" has far more crowd appeal. But let's face it; that's not going to bring about an open and exhaustive debate on any issue.

One bright spot is that third party candidates generally go out of their way to explain their positions. Whether or not I agree with them, I know that a Libertarian candidate would probably be happy to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, a Green Party candidate would probably be happy to phase out synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they would both be happy to close all foreign military bases.


Campaigning should not be a spectator sport. As good citizens, it is incumbent on all of us to stay informed. To the best of our ability, we should be well-versed in the issues of the day and where the candidates stand on those issues. When you turn to an acquaintance at the next neighborhood event, don't ask which Party they are rooting for. Ask about an issue that you care about. A few days ago, I went down to my nearest early voting station to talk to voters about an intentionally misleading amendment on the Florida ballot. Much to my delight, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party had come out against the amendment in their printed voting guides. This amendment enjoyed broad bipartisan disapproval. It was something I could talk to all voters about in a civil manner. Go a step further and ask candidates where they stand on the policy issues that are important to you. Demand specific policy proposals. If you like the proposals, ask candidates to commit to their implementation. This is surprisingly easy. You probably do it all the time with your family and co-workers. I am not suggesting that a candidate will necessarily make good on their campaign promises; that requires far more organizing and agitating.

The outcome of a sports match does not typically result in good or bad public policy. So spectators are free to root for whichever team suits them for whatever reasons they choose, and there is very little downside to the rest of society. The same cannot be said of political candidates and voters. We do ourselves a great disservice, when we treat voting for candidates and the vast sweep of potential solutions available to them as a spectator sport. When we do, we elect politicians that inevitably do not represent us. Because we have not asked them to represent us. We are sated by a good slogan; something that feels good. That leaves a lot of room for the rich and powerful to barge on in and demand representation for themselves with total disregard for the will of the people.

1 comment: