Newmann: An unlevel playing field |

Newmann: An unlevel playing field

“Smart lad, to slip betimes away 
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.”
— A.E. Houseman, “To An Athlete Dying Young”

Houseman’s poem, though a bit stark and somewhat maudlin, still has a measure of truth. We value our athletic heroes … until we don’t.

We watch them in real-time and then hear or read commentary about their performances. Their stats are continually on display. We believe we know their strengths and their weaknesses — and that we even know the athletes themselves. Their personal lives are often examined … and reexamined. We hold them in high esteem when they’re doing well, are quizzical when they hit slumps or falter, and are often highly critical when, in our estimation, they fail. Their laurels grow … and then can wither.

The irony is that most athletes — and most teams — have little or no bearing on our own daily lives (unless, of course, one’s life and income are based on sportsbook betting). Whether a sports figure or team wins or loses is usually a momentary pleasure or frustration. And then it’s on to other aspects of our lives. Until the next big contest comes along.

We might be very familiar with a favorite hitter’s batting average, the number of touchdowns our team’s quarterback has thrown, or how many wins a top skier has. While we seem to have an intimacy with the lives and achievements of sports personalities, can the same be said for our knowledge of the political folks who represent us and who make decisions that really do impact our lives?  

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How much do we really know about our political representatives? Which of their stats are we familiar with? Do we have a clue about their voting records? Or the bills they’ve sponsored? How about the number of concessions they’ve made despite previous promises of definite action on any given measure?

Of course, we do not want to denigrate our duly-elected officials. But we often seem to have much greater clarity on what’s going on in the world of sports and with its various personalities than we do of the happenings in the political arenas and of the politicos who inhabit those realms.

Sports teams need a unity of purpose to win. They’re generally comprised of individuals from different backgrounds, beliefs and identities. But the differences have to be set aside to create a winning squad. If just one player is out of sync, the rest of the team can be affected. If several players are out of loop … well, how do you spell disaster? Failure is not a viable option. When it happens repeatedly, it’s a cause for change. Players get benched or cut; coaches get fired.

Political teams … hmmm, unity of purpose might be a novel way to describe them. They, like sports teams, have folks from different backgrounds, beliefs and identities. But many of them are quite content to keep those differences at the forefront. Being out of sync is not unusual. And failure … well, it’s usually never off the table as an option and, even if it occurs repeatedly, is often not a cause for change. Chances of “players” getting benched, cut or fired take years, if ever.

Athletes seem to, metaphorically, die young. But politicians just go on. And on.

And their “laurels,” such as they are, never seem to wither.

Tom Newmann splits his time between Edwards and Queenstown, New Zealand. He has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at

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