The Sports Talk Radio Election


Okay, so lots of confusion and grief and gnashing of teeth out there over why my adopted state, Massachusetts, just elected a Republican nudie model to fill the seat once held by Ted Kennedy.

I’m gonna try to explain, but I warn you upfront that my explanation isn’t going to make you feel any better, and likely somewhat worse, and maybe even nauseous. Sorry.

Here’s what it comes down to: Sports Talk Radio.

I realize that a lot of you don’t listen to Sports Talk Radio (STR), that you have better things to do with your time, such as, well, pretty much anything.

But I do listen to STR, in particular to Boston’s dominant station, WEEI, despite the fact that I despise all the Boston teams and particularly their loathsome, whiny, self-pitying fans. (I really am just a very fucked up person.)

Still, perhaps the only redeeming effect of listening to STR on a regular basis is that you develop a good sense of what a significant segment of our citizenry is actually feeling – as opposed to telling pollsters. These are men, mostly, but also some women, who spend a lot of time in their vehicles, which transport them (often through homicidal traffic) from spirit-deadening jobs to various bars and homes, where they sit before the televised deeds of muscular supermen, rooting with the purest parts of themselves, in order to feel alive. For additional details, I refer you to Frederick Exley’s transcendentally sad and lovely novel, A Fan’s Note.

STR listeners, in other words, are what you might call “results oriented” people. In this sense, they are merely an exaggerated version of the rest of us. What they want is for their team to “come to play” and “give 110 percent” and “kick ass and take names” and so forth and so on into the great cliché-ridden-almost-eerily-self-helpish STR sunset.

They are not “policy oriented” people. They don’t really care that Scott Brown is a lightweight peddling the boiler-plate bromides, any more than they care that Martha Coakley is an experienced state-wide official. Because, to them, it’s not about governance. It’s about the game.

To them, Brown became an archetype: the fearless underdog, the scrappy rookie poised to pull the big upset. He introduced voters to his truck and worked the crowds tirelessly in a working man’s jacket and talked up his hardscrabble upbringing and his service in the National Guard. (“I’m just proud to serve and be part of the team.”)

As for Coakley, she played her given role with excruciating precision. She was sober in word and manner, appeared at very few events, and in general shunned the groveling theatrics inherent to modern politics. In response to a question about this low-key approach, she said, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”

This is not, as they say, coming to play. This is not giving 110 percent.

Coakley sealed her fate with the STR crowd when she called the former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. Schilling, who briefly considered running for the Senate seat as a Republican, is an authenticated Saint within Red Sox Nation, thanks to his role in the team’s endlessly ballyhooed 2004 World Series win. He’s also never met a microphone he didn’t like.

And so these Coakley “gaffes” were discussed endlessly, and in furious gusts, on STR, and on the right-wing radio programs that dominate the public airwaves in Boston. For the final 48 hours of the campaign, as Coakley and Obama and Clinton scrambled to rally the team, the AM dial became one continuous bellowing ad for Scott Brown. The returns spoke for themselves: Coakley got her base out – and Brown over-performed.

But I’m not just blaming the meatheads on STR for this loss. To a greater extent than anyone cares to acknowledge, the STR mindset is the true winner here.

After all, the folks at NPR and CNN et al wanted this to be a ballgame more than anyone. They’re the ones who routinely reduce our elections to sporting events, with the same incessant focus on who’s ahead and who’s behind and who dropped the ball. They routinely hype matters of astonishing superficiality rather than assessing the qualifications and intended policy of the candidates. And they will do the same thing in the midterms of 2010.

If Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress want to avoid getting bitch-slapped this fall, they’d do well to tune in to the perpetually aggrieved frequencies of STR.

What they’d learn is this: Americans want a winner, someone who projects strength and assurance and who gets shit done and doesn’t apologize for what he’s done, and furthermore who knocks the shit out of anyone who questions his methods or motives.

George W. Bush worked this mojo for eight years, until his inability to run the country became so obvious that Dick Cheney had to start shooting his friends in the face. Better strong and wrong, then right and weak, pardner.

The nutso thing, of course, is that Obama and the democrats are right. Our health care system and financial sectors were fucked by Republican-sponsored greed. We are going to get plowed by China and India if we don’t get serious about energy independence. Our foreign policy under Bush was lethally stupid and costly.

We, as a people, should be volcanically angry at anyone who says otherwise. Obama himself should be knocking the poop out of the Republicans for impeding the moral progress of this country. Every single day. He should be reminding every yammering idiot who listens to STR that he won the election and that the Republicans – along with their corporate sponsored tea-party festivals of ignorance – are nothing more than whiny losers trying to protect their special interest bacon, and that he’s going to ram the great ball of morally-sound policy down their fucking throats on behalf of his constituents until they grow the balls to stop him.

This is all very sad. The leader of a mature democracy shouldn’t have to think or behave like this. I know that. But it’s where we are as a nation – from Cape Cod to Capitola.

Game on, motherfuckers.

Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →