The Mis-Education of America (or, How Trump Won the Big Game)

It is altogether fitting that the United States Senate rammed through Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Secretary of Education at the same time thousands of fervent football fans were attending the New England Patriots victory parade in Boston. Perhaps if this country paid less attention to overpaid sports “heroes” and more attention to this country’s political villains, DeVos might never have been in a position to be confirmed in the first place.

The late right-wing Boston talk radio host David Brudnoy often lamented America’s deification of sports figures, often observing that if you took 100 schoolchildren to any football stadium in the country, and placed a football star at one end of the stadium and Dr. Jonas Salk at the other, every one of those schoolchildren would rush to get the football star’s autograph instead of Dr. Salk’s, even though those children would all be dead were it not for Dr. Salk. Can anyone deny that the ridiculous public adoration of Tom Brady proves that Brudnoy’s observation was right?

Donald Trump learned a key lesson from his forays into football, boxing and wrestling: if you give the people bread and circuses, you can get away with anything. He may be able to get away with authoritarianism so long as enough Americans are distracted by the trivial and the trashy. It is right to be concerned that despite the high-profile havoc of the past three weeks, too few Americans realize that what Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson will do to this country (and in the cases of Pruitt and Tillerson, this planet) is far more important than what Tom Brady and the Patriots did last weekend.

The American sports obsession is not healthy. Imagine if we cared about science as much as we cared about sports; as I’ve often told some of my climate-hawk friends (or as former CNN personality Candy Crowley once called them, “all you climate-change people”), perhaps if American children grew up wanting to wear Neil deGrasse Tyson jerseys to school, and revered scientists instead of athletes, our country and our world might be better off.

Two days before the Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons, Boston NPR affiliate WBUR reported:

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have all shown varying levels of support for President Trump, and that isn’t sitting well with some longtime fans, including “Last Week Tonight” writer and Massachusetts-native Josh Gondelman.

“I’d like to be able to cheer for the team I grew up loving without cheerleading the Trump administration,” the comedian wrote in a tweet Thursday evening, sharing his hesitation with his more than 90,000 followers.

He followed that tweet with the suggestion that those feeling the same way about watching Super Bowl LI could try donating to an organization they support every time the Patriots score, crediting another Boston-area friend for coming up with the idea.

And with that, the hashtag #AGoodGame was born. In his initial tweet, Gondelman pledged $50 and $100 donations to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund for every Patriots field goal and touchdown, respectively. Other users are pledging amounts from $2 to $100 (if Brady is picked as the season MVP) to organizations including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and Council on American Islamic Relations of Massachusetts.

All well and good, but those of us who never rooted for the Patriots, or any sports team–those of us who recognized long ago that America placed way too much intellectual, financial and cultural emphasis on sports–can’t really relate to those who felt conflicted about choosing between touchdowns and tyranny in the first place.

Trump in the White House is the natural outcome of a sports-obsessed culture. Trump tapped into the same macho ethos that is the lifeblood of American athletics; he won the Electoral College by depicting himself as the ultimate star quarterback, a man who can win the big game against all odds. Former US Senator Scott Brown, a Trump loyalist, also tapped into this macho ethos in his victory over Martha Coakley seven years ago.

Hillary Clinton might have won Massachusetts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority of the folks who showed up for the victory parade last Tuesday voted against her. How many of them could tell you who Betsy DeVos is? How many of them even care?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.