As the 2008 Presidential election cycle nears its climax, many Americans are appalled at the increasingly aggressive and confrontational tone of the respective campaigns of the major Parties. On some basic level, we sense that this is not what democracy is supposed to look like. We are variously ashamed and bewildered that the most important decision we make as citizens has been reduced to this glorified popularity contest. In trying to find an explanation for this phenomenon, I am drawn to the theory posited by Robert Wright in his work, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, (Random House, 2000). Citing the discipline of "game theory," developed in the first half of the 20th century, he argues that all human endeavors can be thought of as "zero sum" or "nonzero sum"- interactions.
In the first case, the outcome of the interaction produces a "winner" and a "loser," along with all the egoistic consequences like pride, gloating, shame, envy, animosity, among others. In the second is found the possibility of the highly-desirable "win-win" situation, where all parties concerned can realize at least some part of their agenda, and all can enjoy a result they can live with. In my estimation, many of the institutions in our modern American popular culture are subject to the zero sum model, especially sports but also entertainment (Survivor, award shows, etc.), religion ("our God is better than your God", the idea of a "chosen" people), and commerce (the bottom line supersedes the environmental/social cost). Democracy, practically by definition, should adhere to the nonzero model, ensuring equal opportunity for all for the provision of basic human needs and rights.
As far as the contribution of organized, commercialized sports to the discussion, we need to assess some of the mythology that is present in our national perception. It is touted that sport builds character in our youth, teaching concepts of fair play, humility, good-sportsmanship, by example. In actuality, due to the pressure to succeed induced by the marriage of pure sport for the sake of sport with the corporate need to sell products, athletes at all levels of competition routinely use performance-enhancing drugs, at the expense of the validity of their achievements and--worse--their very health and well-being, which is supposed to be the ultimate desired effect of physical exercise in the first place. Loyalty to team members and fans is subverted by the capitalist urge for the biggest contract. The practice of the sport becomes a mere vehicle, a means to an end, to promote products which, to a huge extent are variously deleterious to human health and/or the health of the environment. What kind of example is this for the young people of America, who certainly do look to their elders for guidance in behavioral development? What they see is a population of egotistical maniacs consuming vast amounts of resources in an out-dated ceremonial orgy that produces little or no lasting good for the public commonwealth. This at the expense of thoughtful, civic-minded, concerted effort to educate ourselves on the epochal issues that confront us as a society.
American democracy, and whatever form our economy eventually takes, will continue to falter until the day we evolve beyond the need for zero sum activities like the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR, and most high-level organized sport. Then we will cease as a society to venerate an atmosphere of zero sum outcomes and this will have an affect on all our institutions, eventually leading to a more sane, just, equitable society for all, including the "non-sports fans".