Writing a coda to the presidency of George W. Bush is surprisingly tough. Almost every major publication in the United States has written and published their final laments for a presidency gone so terribly, horribly wrong.
None of you need to hear again the litany of horrors Bush and his inner circle have inflicted on America and the world: 9/11, two major wars with no real end for either in sight, Katrina, New Orleans, Gitmo, the use of torture, Abu Ghraib, alienating nearly every political ally of the United States, the emboldening of America’s enemies like al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, national debt set to exceed $10 trillion, the near-collapse of what was once known as the world’s most powerful economy. It's Mission Accomplished alright.
Even Osama bin Laden probably couldn’t have imagined this kind of endgame back on Sept. 11, 2001. Hell, when comedians like Jon Stewart can barely contain their anguish, anger and outright indignation on The Daily Show, no longer interested in generating laughs vis-à-vis irony or sarcasm, it's gotten pretty damn bad.
Bush is about to spend his post-Presidency years in the wilderness of seclusion and near-universal hatred around the world. There will be no lasting tributes. There will be no Presidential Library. He is spending his remaining years as a dark vision of enmity for Americans - a man who personifies the worst characteristics of the American Dream turned nightmare.
It's hard to believe, but one of America’s Top Five Worst Presidents (there’s considerable debate if he is the worst, but only future historians will be able to say for sure) is nearly gone.
But since this is a sports blog, I want to talk about what the Bush Era has meant for sports culture in North America.
If there's one tip of the iceberg for what the Bush Era has meant for sports culture, it’s undoubtedly this week’s revelation that FOX Sports’ Troy Aikman, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have been travelling to NFL games and this year’s World Series accompanied by armed U.S. federal marshals.
In many ways, this is just another in a very, very long line of government abuses of taxpayer funds over the past eight years (let’s not mince words and suggest any Presidency has been squeaky-clean and responsible with taxpayer funds). But what this kind of story suggests is another example of the cynical, abusive, wasteful nature of the Bush Era: Three sportscasters getting the Five-Star Treatment with taxpayer money?
The Bush Era culture of unabashed greed and cavalier attitude towards the public infected professional sports like a virus in the past eight years. The FOX story is ultimately harmless (as Shysterball noted, if something happens to Buck, Thom Brennaman becomes their lead baseball play-by-play man), but it's a window into the soulless, money-hungry nature of the sports-industrial complex that has left us all jaded.
It’s a sentiment that sports, like business and politics, has become divorced from the people these institutions presume to serve. Accountability, leadership and cooperation seem like sick, unfunny punch lines nowadays.
In the past eight years, we’ve seen some truly awe-inspiring moments of selfishness in pro sports. We’ve seen players like Mark McGwire and possibly Roger Clemens either lie or take the Fifth to Congressional committees in front of millions of people in vain efforts to save their own skins from permanent damage (talk about wasted energy).
We’ve seen the inequities of baseball revenues increase to the point of absurdity. We’ve seen rich teams get much, much richer and everyone else barely holding on. The survivial of the fittest mentality America used to use as a quiet turn of phrase to justify its numerous "bad acts," foreign and domestic, metastasized into something else in America during the Bush Years; the utility of saying "I care about me first, screw you all" became particularly self-evident the day sports reporters railed at the lunacy of America’s Most Hated Team, the Yankees, spending $400 million in one week and launching the New Yankee Stadium during a time of economic austerity measures. The Washington Nationals' new ballpark was a prime example of government without representation.
We’ve seen what hubris and hypocrisy can do to an entire sports league with the jaw-dropping decline of the NHL. Case in point: The Phoenix Coyotes –- a team on the verge of bankruptcy due to poor managerial decisions and a market best described as ambivalent. Even after the two-faced parlour game that was the season-killing Lockout of 2004-05, the NHL has fallen into an economic tailspin, has no major TV deal in America and has alienated fans across the continent. In the zero-sum game that is pro hockey, the unabashed greed of players and owners alike have killed whatever goodwill towards hockey there ever was in tenuous markets like Florida or Nashville.
These are just a few examples. And really, listing them all off isn’t going to accomplish anything.
Bush and Co. didn’t make these aspects of professional sports happen themselves. But it’s also naïve to think sports is distinct and separate from politics. If anything, sports and politics got a lot closer (some would say much too close) during the Bush Years. After all, the Rovian Strategy of Win At All And Every Cost, But Just Win It has a lot in common with sports. Even the fact both domains have the tendency to feature, once in awhile, people who will break the rules for the final big score at the end.
But it’s not as if sports are a pointless activity for the people who love it. Sure, sports are a business first and foremost — entertainment for the masses of people who just want something to celebrate about.
But it’s also, quite candidly, something people need to believe in. In a world full of empty slogans, false rhetoric and strange analogies involving pit bulls and lipstick, sports is something a person can have faith in . We can see it, touch it or relate to it unfailingly. It’s real. It’s a place of transcendence, emotion and transformation. It reminds people that no, life isn’t all about living paycheque to paycheque or coming home to a house full of pain and dreams unrealized. It’s something you, your neighbour and someone 3,000 km away can share in.
Thing is, belief is a precarious thing. If the Bush Years accomplished one cerebral, indefinable truth these past eight years, it's this: Bush made people stop believing.
People stopped believing in a lot of things during his Presidency: Government run by people for people, businesses that didn't so brazenly and publicly act with contempt and ignorance of average people –- the list goes on and on. When people lose faith in their leaders, it won’t be long before people lose faith in the institutions that support them.
But there's hope.
Two great aspects of American Life came into their own during these eight years of tumult that may help restore faith in sports: The Internet and Barack Obama.
Back in 2000, the Internet and blogs were largely ineffectual to the way things were done in politics, business and sports (the dot-com crash now looks like a small-time correction compared to today). While it’s important to not overstate the case at the risk of OOLF's own potential for hubris, blogs and the Web have become powerful tools to keep our leaders in check, balance power and report stories that can change things.
Even the 44th President, Barack Obama, has done more before his inauguration to restore hope to Americans than Bush could ever achieve in eight years. He’s brought back the idea that the ideas of accountability, leadership and vision have places in government; let’s hope that it also filters into areas of business and sports. It has more to do with the economy than any talk about change, but the Cleveland Indians, coming off a sub-.500 season, are holding town hall-style meetings to try to rally their core fans.
Obama’s even ventured into one of America’s most precious sports institutions —- college football -- and inspired the possibility of change in one of the most hidebound sports institutions. Did anyone really swallow whole the notion that the Florida Gators were national champions after that unwatchable BCS title game broadcast on FOX Sports with the heartbeat-away Thom Brennaman mucking up the call? (Brennaman is the son of a long-time baseball broadcaster, Marty Brennaman, so how appropriate that it was graced by someone who has been legacy pick all his life -- like Bush!)
At the end of the day, Bush’s Reign of Error has instilled a lesson into all of us: Ideas about the world are meaningless if you can’t back them up with responsibility and action. Cynicism is only possible when we allow it to happen, for taking control of ourselves and our democratic institutions means more than just concerning yourself with just yourself.
The sports world has seen some rough times during the Bush Era. It is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.
Of course, keeping the faith is important. As goes one of the lines in The Dark Knight — perhaps the single most defining film of the Bush Era —"people deserve to have their faith rewarded."
Enjoy Inauguration Day next Tuesday.