Will somebody please explain why we give a hoot about “Deflategate”? For those who have had the good sense to avoid the news and sports on TV, that’s the inevitable “gate” tag we clever ones have attached to the scandal over whether the New England Patriots cheated by using footballs that were not blown up to legal size and therefore made easier to grip. The Patriots easily won the playoff game that propelled them to the Super Bowl, and even though the consensus was that ball size was not a deciding factor, size still does matter sometimes. It’s to the point that the controversy has shoved aside the usual banal conversation leading up to the big game, which not only decides the NFL championship, but is an event that is the most watched each year. It continues to be a big deal, even in a professional sport facing real controversies — players who are domestic abusers, a game itself that leaves so many of its players severely injured for life and an organization that tolerates a franchise with a blatantly racist name? Despite all that, each year we get caught up in the Super Bowl, with its excess and grossly outsized egos.
All of the hype kinda reminds us of politics, doesn’t it? How else to comprehend the attention that the political media pay to a gathering of hard-right Republicans in Iowa, convened by the unapologetically extreme-right Congressman Steve King. A big chunk of the GOP presidential field was there, largely those who are trying to outdo each other in appealing to party members who prefer their meat red. And in Iowa, they are all about red meat. To give an idea of who made up the 1,200 or so in the audience, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush decided not to attend, possibly to avoid the embarrassment of being booed off stage. Actually, one “moderate,” Chris Christie, did decide to show up, but as he pointed out, he’s from New Jersey and is used to nastiness.
Of course, the lineup of far-right fielders was well-represented; Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum were there to insist that they could rescue America from the scourge of liberalism and undo damage that the Satan Barack Obama has inflicted. But they were not the headliners: Donald Trump and Sarah Palin were. Both announced to the world that they were available to lead our nation back from despair. Palin said repeatedly she is “seriously interested,” and Trump did, too, insisting: “I’m the one person who can make this country great again, that’s all I know.”
So that brings to nearly 30 the number of Republicans who think they have what it takes to win the election Super Bowl. But that’s not till November of next year. Between now and then, they’ll be flocking to endless exhibition games like Congressman King’s gathering of the Iowa faithful, and we in political pack journalism will be there in force, as we scramble for every morsel tossed to us by those who frequently insult us.
Why do we participate? What else would we do? Cover substance? Surely you jest. Even as the aforementioned President Obama continues to hurl policies with significant impact, we’ll spend most of our time regurgitating how angry he has made the opposition Congress, and dwell on the GOP’s maneuvers. We’ll spend almost no time digging in to the pros and cons of his proposals. They are only the backdrop for the really big shoe, which is the campaign.
Maybe that’s why Deflategate became such a big deal. The first of the two weeks before the big football game isn’t very newsworthy, so we had to create some controversy. But let’s not get too carried away looking for similarities. When it comes to sports and politics, there’s one big difference: People care about the Super Bowl.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.