Republicans held their national convention last week in Philadelphia's First Union Center, known locally as F.U. (Draw your own ironies.) Democrats this week will convene in L.A.'s Staples Center, lair of Zen master Phil Jackson. ( Al Gore will get his presidential nomination in that town's foremost temple of Buddhism.) It's apt that the two parties chose to gather in gleaming new sports arenas, for politics has become the new sports, and sports the new politics.
Think about it. Baseball teams were once passed down through families, and political candidates were machine made. The reverse is now true. Political candidacy has become a legacy—witness Gore and George W. Bush—and baseball teams are machine-operated: by the Tribune Co., by News Corp., by Time Warner.
If current polls hold up, Americans will elect a former baseball owner as their next president. Bush governed the Texas Rangers for almost as long as he has governed Texas, and while "W" is his middle initial, the same can barely be said for his ball club, which had a middling .504 winning percentage from 1989 through '94. If the perception persists that presidential candidates, like baseball owners, simply spend their way to victory, wouldn't the most effective baseball owner make the most effective Chief Executive? Two chilling words, America: President Steinbrenner.
Had Bill Bradley prevailed in the Democratic primaries, we would now be witnessing the mother of all labor wars: former owner (Bush) versus former player ( Bradley) for control of the free world. Instead, 32 years after the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the DNC will pass uneventfully at the Staples Center, where zealots did riot this year—over the NBA Finals. (What were once violent conventions have turned into mere pep rallies, and what were once pep rallies have turned into violent conventions.) Networks used to report football scores during a break in coverage of the Republican National Convention. Last week, ABC aired the RNC at halftime of a football game.
What Americans once demanded from their politicians, it seems, they now long for from their athletes. Character is no longer required in the White House ( President Clinton's approval rating remained high during the Lewinsky scandal) but is compulsory for entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. ( Pete Rose will see the Rose Garden before he sees Cooperstown.) So our biggest, most product-mongering athletes have become blander than Gary Bauer. Tiger Woods—allied with Wheaties, Buick, Nike—doesn't dare offend anyone who eats, drives or wears shoes.
It's a remarkable flip-flop—like Gore going antitobacco—the way athletes and pols have reversed roles. Jesse Helms is no longer the obvious butt of intolerance jokes in Jay Leno's monologue; John Rocker is (and before him, Reggie White).
Thankfully, most platitude-mouthing, endorsement-addled superstars now come with quotable (if embarrassing) Loose Cannon Relatives. Earl Woods and Richard Williams have displaced Billy Carter and Roger Clinton, thereby becoming the LCRs of the new century. When Earl made fun of Scotland in Icon magazine—the reporter taped the interview—Tiger denied the whole affair in Scotland, at the British Open. "He didn't say those things," Woods told a man from the Times of London in a press conference that could have taken place in the briefing room of the Nixon White House. "But I know you wrote them." So one more reporter's name was added to the Enemies List.
Another Woods, Rose Mary, was the loyal Nixon secretary who made a "terrible mistake" and accidentally erased 18� minutes of the Watergate tapes. Coincidence? I think not.