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Hard Hits and Bounties in Football and Politics—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was posted on Bloomberg.com on March 15, 2012.

Hard Hits and Bounties in Football and Politics
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

Even if you’re not a sports fan, chances are you have heard about the controversy surrounding Gregg Williams, who recently coached the defense of the New Orleans Saints and several other professional football teams.

Williams supposedly offered cash bounties to his players for knocking opposing teams’ stars out of the game. Sportswriters are appropriately outraged, but if you follow the comment threads, you will find a lot of anonymous fans who insist that this is just hard-hitting football.

Most of Williams’s defenders, I suspect, are fans of teams he has coached. Meanwhile, fans of teams whose players might have been injured by Williams’s schemes are screaming for his head. In sports, we have come to expect such double standards. The trouble is, they have spilled over into every area of life, including politics.

Unless you have been vacationing in a Trappist monastery, you no doubt have followed, perhaps unwillingly, the contretemps surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s nasty comments about a Georgetown University law student who testified in favor of the Obama administration’s new contraceptive policy. The fascinating part of the controversy isn’t the universal condemnation of Limbaugh’s remarks, but the second-order debate over whether liberals are being hypocritical for coming down so hard on him while swiftly forgiving sometimes cruder comments from left- leaning pundits about conservative women.

Common Goal

Many observers are left uneasy by the double standard. On the other hand, Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times, has argued instead that one can consistently be harsher on one’s opponents than on one’s allies for the same offense, because of the importance of the common goal being pursued. Seen this way, the seeming double standard becomes a mark of integrity. Fish, in turn, has been subjected to withering attacks -- and so the merry-go-round continues.

There is a partisanship that involves rooting for my side, and there is a partisanship that involves insisting that my side can do no wrong, that all the bad guys are on the other side. In politics nowadays, all across the spectrum, we see fewer and fewer partisans of the first type, more and more of the second. The growing disparity threatens to transform democracy into just another spectator sport -- and, as in other sports, potential followers might be driven away by the behavior of boorish fans.

To understand the problem, it is useful to consider two very different meanings of the word “fan.” The Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary above my writing desk states with quiet confidence that “fan” represents a shortening of “fanatic,” and I suspect that most of those who think about the derivation assume the same thing.

But the issue is not quite so clear. The authoritative Dictionary of American Slang classifies the origin of the word as “uncertain,” adding that the term might indeed stem from “fanatic,” but might also come from “the fancy,” meaning “sports followers or fanciers.” The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions, but does not provide, a use from 1682. Evidently the term “fancy” for followers of a sport dates at least from 1735 -- a contraction, it seems, of “fantasy.”

Perhaps both accounts are useful. There is a kind of fan who is indeed a fanatic, for whom every call against his team represents an occasion to doubt the competence or impartiality of the officials. Then there is the kind of fan who is a fancier, who may root for a team but whose real passion is for the sport itself. The fanatic is the one who screams at the referee that the receiver was pushed out of bounds by the defender, and so the catch should count. The fancier is the one who calmly points out that the rule was changed a few years ago, so if the receiver is forced out, there is no catch.

Us and Them

The continuing political debate between those who demand an even-handed approach and those who think you should reserve your attacks for your enemies tracks precisely this distinction between fanatics and fanciers. Probably we should be unsurprised. Evolutionary psychologists insist that the dividing of the world into “us” and “them” is natural to us, a genetic holdover from our hunter-gatherer days, when we shared with our fellows and fought off attacks from strangers. We are psychologically comfortable, the theory runs, only when we know who is on our side and who isn’t, and can draw clean dividing lines between the two. So strong is this habit, researchers say, that we tend to discount suffering among members of the “out” group while highlighting it among members of the “in” group.

Instinct, then, makes us fanatics rather than fanciers. Fair enough. But the force of civilization is supposed to be away from instinct in the direction of reason. There was a time in living memory when both parties included respected senior members whose esteem for institutions and processes led them to become voices of moderation.

I remember an occasion during the Reagan administration when a relatively minor breach of Senate tradition (not even a written rule) would have allowed the Democrats to defeat the nomination of Daniel Manion, whom they bitterly opposed, for a federal appellate judgeship. A junior Democratic member tried to go against the tradition, but was immediately restrained by his more senior colleagues, for whom the prerogatives of the institution were more important than prevailing in the battle. It is difficult to imagine such a thing happening today.

Stanley Fish asserts that when great moral issues are at stake, the correct governing principle is not the Golden Rule but “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” I think he may be right -- as long as we are thinking only of the truly great moral divides, such as the fight over slavery in the 19th century. The trouble with contemporary politics is that partisan fanatics make every issue the occasion for a double standard; and we have all too few fanciers to correct them.

Words as Instrument

The philosopher Daniel N. Robinson, in his 2002 book “Praise and Blame,” points out that praise and blame are “records” but also “instruments” -- they both make moral statements and shape the moral world. In sports, we often take partisan sides on an empirical issue: Either the player was out of bounds or he wasn’t. When we do so, we are using our words as an instrument, trying to shape the game so that our side is more likely to win.

But let us at least be clear about our motive. We are not interested in the rules. We are not even interested in the game, except as a tool for victory. In democratic politics, we need our share of strong advocates, for whom winning is, in Vince Lombardi’s hoary exhortation, the only thing. But we need our referees even more. We require a critical mass of people -- in particular, people of influence -- for whom the rules are all but sacrosanct, and the game is more important than the outcome. We need people, in short, whose passion for the process itself is greater than their passion for the outcome. When that group vanishes, real democracy goes with it.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his next novel, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” will be published in July. The opinions expressed are his own.)