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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Electing a Head Coach Instead of a President

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I've been a sports fan since childhood. What red-blooded American boy of my generation wasn't? And once again, the Super Bowl's looming. For years, I've spent that night with friends -- watching, eating... you know the routine. And undoubtedly I will again this Sunday. But that night, for the first time in my long life, football may look weirdly alien to me. After all, almost without noticing, I stopped watching it this year. Completely. Not a game. Not even a quarter. Not once. And I know why (though it crept up on me): the drumbeat of news coming out about players in that bruising sport damaging their brains (often from their teen years on) via concussion after concussion on the field.

What can I say? Somehow, that vision of a scrambled-egg version of sports got to me. And here's something else I haven't been watching: the impeachment hearings in the Senate. Yes, I did catch some of the witness testimony in the House and, yes, I'm still keeping up with the nightly news and daily newspaper accounts of what's going on. But watch it directly, no? That crept up on me, too, and now I have a football-style explanation for why. In the case of the Trump presidency and the blizzard of news, fake news, tweets, 24/7 commentary, and god knows what else that has impeached us all, we, out here in the real world, are the ones getting the concussions. Who can deny that the Trump presidency is a distinctly concussive event? And I guess when it came to the Senate proceedings and their foregone conclusion, given the nature of the modern Republican Party, I just found myself shying away from another kind of concussive experience. After all, political brain damage is nothing to sneeze at.

Part of my recipe for holding off those concussions is to post former New York Times sports columnist and TomDispatch regular Robert Lipsyte's new piece on why football is such an apt analogy for this presidency. Check it out. I think it's an instant classic. Tom

The Super Bowl Presidency
Five Criteria for Selecting the Worst Old White Man to Lead Us
By Robert Lipsyte

Attorney General William Barr's campaign to expand the powers of the presidency to unprecedented imperial levels has been misinterpreted as an attempt to raise Donald Trump to the level of his strongman heroes like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Jair Bolsonaro. Fake news! It's really been an attempt to boost him into the same league with the strongman heroes of far too many American men: the head coaches of our major sports, especially football. As a gang of anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, authoritarian bullies dedicated to winning at any cost, they have paved the way for Donald Trump and his "base."

If the American political class were interested in electing a decent president, perhaps even one with moral courage, personal dignity, and an inspirational vision, they would be concentrating on the character, philosophy, and background of the candidates, right? But since those in the political arena, at least brand Republican, are mostly concerned with donor dollars, expanding that base, and the charisma of their macho leader, many of them are all too ready to follow a big, loud, glad-handing figure eager to lead us deep into crises that he -- and yes, it is a "he" -- will claim only he can bulldoze through.

We're talking, in other words, about the presidential version of a football head coach, as sports leads the way into" maybe not just the end zone, but The End. Examples of such men are abundantly in the news right now, since the college football season has ended and pro football has reached its orgiastic holy day, the Super Bowl, this Sunday. College and pro teams are scrambling to hire new head coaches, predominantly white men, of course, who score high (as does Donald Trump) in the five main criteria for the job.

1. The Head Coach must offer purpose and meaning to people who feel powerless by offering them membership in something bigger than themselves: the tribe of a team that will be "great again." To wear the orange or crimson or purple, to be part of a crowd screaming for the Tigers or Raiders or Redskins (or The Donald), is to dream that tomorrow will be so much better because the new head coach, manager, skipper, top dog can deliver. The aura that he brings is invariably short-lived, but it can linger as hope, before it dwindles into immortal nostalgia.

In football, there have been plenty of incredible shrinking coaches. In politics, think John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, all of whom still make their fans breathless with possibilities unrealized.

The prototype head coach was undoubtedly the Norwegian-born Knute Rockne, who actually delivered on many of the possibilities he promised. A showman as well as a football savant -- he popularized the forward pass in the 1920s -- he leveraged publicity from winning games to turn Notre Dame into a nationally recognized university with a cultish following. In the process, he became rich and famous before dying in 1931, at age 43, in a plane crash en route to Hollywood to appear as himself in a movie.

Among the myths he invented along the way was winning "one for the Gipper" -- George Gipp, one of his young stars who died of pneumonia in his senior year in college. In 1940, actor Ronald Reagan played the Gipper onscreen, creating the basis for his own future head-coach presidency.

The most iconic National Football League head coach was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who came to fame in the early days of the pro football boom. He's best known for the quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Lombardi was too smart to have said that and too smart to deny it once it burnished his legend. Too bad, since that sentiment is so often the defense of bad behavior in political life -- from future president Lyndon Johnson stealing his first election to the Senate to President Trump betraying the Kurds, among other crimes and misdemeanors.

What Lombardi probably said was something more like: "Winning isn't everything. Trying to win is." That's the kind of self-help motto that fits a classic head coach's larger message to both his players and the fans: Follow me. Do what I say. Only I know the way.

2. The Head Coach, college variety, must sell "the program," the preferred term for the corporate-style athletic department of this era. He does it with a shape-shifting charm that can seduce both small-town working-class families and global financial wolves. In that way, the head coach should remind us of presidential hopefuls who can work both everyday Midwestern diners and waterfront East Hampton fund-raisers for the corporate elite.

In a living room with a talented teenager, he can convincingly promise mom and dad that he will act in loco parentis, not only by keeping junior out of trouble, but by giving him enough playing time to assure him either a pro career or a Wall Street job via successful alumni. At the least, he will make a man out of him.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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