"Government’s Legitimate Role: A Football Analogy"
By Stephen Hiltner
One seemingly bottomless source of national pessimism today is the notion that government can’t do anything right and that regulators are by nature the enemy of freedom and commerce. This pessimism, deeply rooted in the ideology that took hold in the 1980s, is a core impediment to action on climate change.
President Obama took a different view in his inauguration speech, saying we’ve learned from the nation’s history that “a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” Today’s Super Bowl will confirm this view, as players in a thriving NFL demonstrate that immersion in a closely regulated playfield environment is no impediment to high performance, spirit and invention.
Sports in general provides a fine analogy for what government’s role should ideally be. The athletes and their teams, motivated to beat the competition, bring to their game the same energy and creativity that entrepreneurs and businesses bring to the marketplace. But though the players and coaches may dispute a call now and then, they don’t make the mistake of perceiving regulation as the enemy. Rather, a good game requires clear rules and regulations that are fairly applied.
Boundaries in sports do not constrict action so much as channel it, challenging the players to refine their skills to make the most of the freedom and opportunities the game’s framework provides. Without a net and clear boundaries, tennis would never have produced the likes of a Federer or Djokovic. Similarly, manufacturers have responded to the combination of a competitive marketplace and rigorous government standards by greatly increasing the efficiency of appliances like refrigerators, while also lowering costs. Environmental regulations, then, are falsely maligned when in fact they can motivate manufacturers to dramatically improve their products and save consumers money.
There must be many football fans who believe that the nation’s economy would thrive if only government regulations were slashed, and yet the game itself is a celebration of rules and regulations. While underregulated financial institutions were precipitating a financial meltdown in the fall of 2007, football fans were scrutinizing instant replays for the slightest infraction.
This past fall, professional football provided a definitive demonstration of what happens when governance is given short shrift. When the NFL replaced its union referees with high school and college refs used to slower-paced play, their incompetence damaged the game. The NFL essentially replicated an experiment conducted by George W. Bush. By putting incompetent appointees in charge of FEMA, President Bush set the stage for the botched government response to the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers got it right when he said that top notch play and officiating are complementary, not antagonistic. A high standard of play on the field must be “complemented by an appropriate set of officials.”
Sports, too, clearly demonstrates the flaw in the assertion that regulations would better be determined by states rather than by the federal government. Imagine if teams in different states could make up their own rules and field dimensions. The result would be chaos, which is why industry so often lobbies for uniform standards at the federal level.
Ideologies that equate regulation with tyranny, common in political discourse, sound bizarre when applied to the realm of sports. You don’t hear athletes quoting Ayn Rand and calling for the elimination of referees and boundaries in the name of freedom. Nor is there any illusion that professional athletes will nobly police their own behavior. As football has increased in speed and complexity, the NFL has increased the number of referees from 3 to 7. Contrast this with calls by many politicians to get government out of the way of financial markets, even as the financial sector has exploded in size, complexity and speed.
But the importance of regulation and its consistent enforcement goes beyond insuring an exciting, fair, well-paced competition, whether in sports or the marketplace. Particularly in football, good regulation also protects players from mutual destruction. It is understood that each player is potentially a lethal weapon, capable of harming self and others.
In some ways, chronic traumatic encephalopathy–the longterm consequence of repeated concussion–is to football what climate change is to a fossil fuel-based economy. Both maladies are slow to manifest, eventually making normal life impossible. How does one save football, when the violence it is based on puts players’ brains at risk? And how to save our economy, when the fuels it is based on put the nation at ever-increasing risk of catastrophic changes in weather patterns? Here, again, the sports world has proven more mature and reality-based than the political realm. As scientific evidence of the long-term impact of concussions has accumulated, denial has given way to regulatory efforts to grapple with the problem.
As in the marketplace, the goal in football is not to rid the game of regulations, but to find the right balance. Too much regulation stifles creativity and slows the action. Too little breeds chaos and puts the players and the game itself at risk. When well-targeted regulations are consistently applied, governance disappears into the background and all attention can be focused on the game.
It is this aspect of the anti-government movement in our national political discourse that is most corrosive of the nation’s functioning and spirit. The constant questioning of government’s legitimate role in regulating society has the paradoxical effect of keeping government in the foreground, a bleeding sore that will not heal. We need to get past this constant berating of government, acknowledge its vital role, and work to refine its implementation so that it can hum along smoothly in the background.
Referees and regulators will never be loved. But there can be no doubt they are vital to the game. It’s time such an understanding spreads to our political discourse.
Stephen Hiltner is a writer, naturalist and musician based in Princeton, NJ. Trained in sciences at University of Michigan, he founded the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ellerbecreek.org) in Durham, NC, and later spearheaded habitat restoration efforts in Princeton’s many nature preserves. He currently writes, lives and teaches nature appreciation and sustainable living through courses, interpretive walks, and his various blogs, which can be accessed via NewsCompanion.com.