While exiting the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a concerned citizen what kind of regime had been agreed upon. He pithily replied "a Republic, if you can keep it." In doing so, he also betrayed a sense of apprehension since, historically, republics had been few and mostly short-lived. The Founding Fathers clearly had a keen awareness of the fact that maintaining a vibrant and successful republic is an ongoing struggle that requires constant effort and learning. Studying the Constitution and the country's foundational documents can thus be very helpful. But so can be focusing on America's contemporary passion: football. This is because, in many ways, football points out to an ideal version of a republic. Consider the following:
Every Spring, all NFL teams get to add new talent to their rosters but in a very particular, almost Christian-inspired manner: The teams that finished last select first and the first go last. Hence, every team is given an opportunity to return to greatness. Although there are no guarantees (think Ryan Leaf), the end result is a boost for parity. But parity does not mean that everybody will have the same results. There will still be winners and losers and only one out of 32 teams will get to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Here is why this is important for politics: In an ideal version of the modern republic, everyone should be equally entitled to a chance. Through education, scholarships and social programs, the meritorious are able to advance and succeed. A feeling of fairness and equality thus pervades society decreasing tensions. However, there will still be winners and losers and only a few who reach the very top.
The NFL Fan
Go to any city in the U.S. and within minutes, if not seconds, you are bound to see people who visibly profess their love and attachment to a specific team. Strike a conversation, even with a stranger, and it is more likely than not that he or she will be knowledgeable about the latest team developments, key stats, not to mention their club's history. I recently visited Cleveland and the first (and really only) thing that the taxi driver wanted to talk about was the Browns trading Trent Richardson. Nor should we underestimate the lengths that NFL fans can go to show their dedication. At a New York Jets game at Met Life stadium, I witnessed a fan being profiled on the giant screen who claimed to have gotten married on a bye week.
The ideal NFL fan also suggests the ideal citizen for a modern republic. A citizen who follows events and political developments on a daily basis; a citizen who knows the way that his or her representative votes; a citizen who understands the history of his nation; and above all, a citizen who lives and breathes, daily, his love of country.
The Salary Cap
All NFL teams are permitted to spend exactly the same amount on player salaries (this year the cap stands at $123 million). Some people complain that this is socialism through the back door. However, this is simply not the case. After all, there are enormous monetary disparities between the top athletes and the more average players; and stars can easily augment their income through commercial endorsements. Nope, the well-enforced cap is not about socialism. It is about creating a level-playing field. A republic can learn a lot from this, especially today. The cap is a warning not to deny income inequalities but try to keep them within reasonable limits; and it also suggests that a larger legal framework be in place to curb excesses and prevent law-breakers.
The Flex Schedule
NBC's Sunday Night Football is the nation's top television program, commanding a huge audience for each week's marquee football game. Every year, the games that will be shown are announced before the season begins. But the people behind the show are wise. They reserve the right to change the schedule towards the end and select new games based on the latest developments. This is because they understand a fundamental truth about football: Surprises are bound to take place, there are no inevitabilities and often the best strategy is to accept and expect the unexpected. The same applies to a republic. We only delude ourselves if we think that we can prepare and plan for everything. Humility and flexibility are necessary correlates in the operation of a successful republic.
The Super Bowl
Every February a game with colossal stakes takes place. A winner is declared and showered in confetti and the fans of only one team rejoice and celebrate; and then it is back to work for all 32 teams in a spirit of anticipation, acceptance, parity and unity. The game goes on, for the game is bigger than any team or any victory. Similarly, in politics, after elections or votes are decided, everyone should acknowledge the rules, accept (even grudgingly) the winner and work hard to win next time around.
So by all means study the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers. However, also pay particular attention to football since it instills valuable lessons on how a modern, ideal republic ought to operate. Football recommends a sense of fairness and parity but also accepts winners and losers. It urges flexibility and adaptation; and it suggests that citizens be well-informed, passionate and also accepting of defeats -- for they will always have another chance.
Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.