Personal responsibility phonies: Conservative pols’ griping about baseball team’s dismissal is sadly emblematic

By: - June 29, 2021 6:00 am
Image: Creative Commons

No modern politician ever got in trouble with their constituents by complaining about how a hometown sports team was treated by officials. Especially in recent decades, griping about unpopular official rulings has become the default position for public figures looking to curry favor with voters. A couple years back, a judge in New Orleans actually allowed a lawsuit to proceed that challenged the outcome of a National Football League conference championship game because the officials blew an important pass interference call.

Seen in this light, it’s perhaps not surprising that some North Carolina Republican pols – most notably, former governor Pat McCrory – have engaged in a binge of opportunistic griping about the decision of NCAA officials over the weekend to dismiss the N.C. State baseball team from the College World Series in Omaha after some number of players tested positive for COVID-19. Especially given its generally poor reputation in the sporting public, for a politician, blasting the NCAA is like attacking “drug kingpins” or “terrorism”: political catnip.

But there is a big difference between griping about a blown “safe” or “out” call in a baseball game and a decision regarding a life-and-death public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. And, ultimately, that’s what makes the broadsides fired by McCrory, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, state House Speaker Tim Moore and others in recent days so inappropriate and irresponsible.

While it’s certainly understandable that the N.C. State players and their fans are hugely frustrated by the sudden end to the season when the team was just three wins away from a national championship (and that public figures would want to express support), the hard truth is that baseball is utterly irrelevant when it comes to saving human lives.

And while it’s true that there are some weird inconsistencies in the modern American sports world in which many jurisdictions allow thousands of fans to attend games shoulder-to-shoulder without PPE while players and coaches are required to undergo frequent testing and don masks, it’s also the case that the rules adopted by the sporting bodies like the NCAA are: a) rooted in sound public health policy designed to control the virus and protect athletes and those with whom they come in contact, and b) the same for everyone.

The adults in charge of the N.C. State baseball program knew (or should have known) the rules they were operating under and should have made them very clear to the young people in their charge. If they thought them wrong or unfair or scientifically unfounded, they should have spoken up ahead of time.

And then there is the real elephant in the room: the issue of vaccination. While it appears that some of the players who tested positive may have been at least partially vaccinated, it’s been hard to listen to the statements of N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent in the wake of the team’s dismissal (in which, among other things, he referred to vaccination issue as “politics”) without concluding that several players were not, and that neither Avent nor N.C. State administrators did much to address the matter.

If this is the case, then it’s doubly clear that McCrory and the others dispensing gripes should zip it. For years, it’s been politicians of the right like these men who have inundated us with lectures about “personal responsibility” and the idea that individuals who run afoul of societal rules must accept the consequences of their actions.

Today, there is no better example of an issue in which all people bear a personal responsibility to society than that of COVID-19 vaccination. Except for the very narrow group of people for whom health conditions make vaccination dangerous or impossible, getting vaccinated is a civic duty for all Americans.

Indeed, it’s the vaccinations that so many people have already obtained that makes holding events like baseball tournaments even possible in the first place.

Weirdly, however, throughout most of the 21st century, it’s the political right that has maintained an aversion to personal responsibility and shared sacrifice for the common good – much less living out such values to educate and inspire young people.

Especially in the era of Trumpism – a time in which people who give their lives for the country in war are “suckers” and the act of refusing to accept a legitimate election outcome, even to the point of endangering our democracy, is tolerated – the predominant “conservative” value has come to be “looking out for Number One.”

Rather than urging Americans to ask what they can do for their country, the cynical message commended repeatedly by Trump and his coterie of craven toadies today is that all Americans should, whenever possible, grab all they can for themselves with the least possible personal effort or sacrifice, and then whine and moan if things don’t go their way.

And tragically, that’s the message being delivered in recent days by some North Carolina politicians who have cynically sullied what ought to have been a powerful teaching moment.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.