When Sports and Politics Mix

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Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What do you think about the Supreme Court decision in this term’s affirmative-action cases?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com

Conversations of Note

The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the use of race in admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina was released today. Here’s an excerpt from Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion:

The entire point of the Equal Protection Clause is that treating someone differently because of their skin color is not like treating them differently because they are from a city or from a suburb, or because they play the violin poorly or well. “One of the principal reasons race is treated as a forbidden classification is that it demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities.” But when a university admits students “on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike … at the very least alike in the sense of being different from nonminority students. In doing so, the university furthers “stereotypes that treat individuals as the product of their race, evaluating their thoughts and efforts—their very worth as citizens—according to a criterion barred to the Government by history and the Constitution” …

While the dissent would certainly not permit university programs that discriminated against black and Latino applicants, it is perfectly willing to let the programs here continue. In its view, this Court is supposed to tell state actors when they have picked the right races to benefit. Separate but equal is “inherently unequal,” said Brown. It depends, says the dissent.

And here is an excerpt from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent:

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment enshrines a guarantee of racial equality. The Court long ago concluded that this guarantee can be enforced through race-conscious means in a society that is not, and has never been, colorblind …

Today, the Court concludes that indifference to race is the only constitutionally permissible means to achieve racial equality in college admissions. That interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment is not only contrary to precedent and the entire teachings of our history, but is also grounded in the illusion that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation. Entrenched racial inequality remains a reality today. That is true for society writ large and, more specifically, for Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC), two institutions with a long history of racial exclusion. Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality …

Society remains highly segregated … Moreover, underrepresented minority students are more likely to live in poverty and attend schools with a high concentration of poverty … In turn, underrepresented minorities are more likely to attend schools with less qualified teachers, less challenging curricula, lower standardized test scores, and fewer extracurricular activities and advanced placement courses. It is thus unsurprising that there are achievement gaps along racial lines, even after controlling for income differences …

Students of color, particularly Black students, are disproportionately disciplined or suspended, interrupting their academic progress and increasing their risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Underrepresented minorities are less likely to have parents with a postsecondary education who may be familiar with the college application process. Further, low-income children of color are less likely to attend preschool and other early childhood education programs that increase educational attainment. All of these interlocked factors place underrepresented minorities multiple steps behind the starting line in the race for college admissions.

Don’t Break Up With Your Friends

Here at The Atlantic, Olga Khazan describes a pattern she has noticed in multiple female friendships:

First comes the spark of affinity at the group hang: You loved the Ferrante novels too? Then come the bottomless brunches, if you don’t have kids, or playground dates, if you do. Together, you and your new friend weave text threads scheduling coffee and reassuring each other that you’re being normal and that those other people are being crazy. Periodically, the heart emoji interjects.

Eventually, though, comes a minor affront, a misunderstanding, a misalignment—then another, and another. They’re all small things, of course, but like, she always does this. And then, all too often, comes what is known in therapy circles as the “giant block of text.”

What’s more, she writes, “advice is proliferating on how to aggressively confront, or even abandon, friends who disappoint us. Online guides abound for ‘how to break up with a friend,’ as though the struggle is in what to say, rather than whether to do it. One TikTok therapist suggested that you tell your erstwhile friend ‘you don’t have the capacity to invest’ in the friendship any longer, like you’re a frazzled broker and they’re a fading stock. The massive paragraph of text, though not a friend breakup per se, often reads like one—and leads to one.”

Khazan argues for a different approach:

You don’t need a guide for breaking up with your friends, because you don’t need to break up with your friends. You just need to make more friends … The resounding chorus from everyone I interviewed was that no one person can fulfill all of your needs. Some friends are good listeners, some invite you on fun trips. The person you call in a crisis might not be the one who tells the best jokes at happy hour.

American Spoilsports

In an attempt to attract a younger fan base, professional sports leagues are touting their commitments to social justice. Ethan Strauss argues that the attendant politicization carries a cost:

America is composed of many societies and cultures. Among these cultures is a cohort of people who believe that sports serve a higher purpose, if not a massively important societal function. Kenny Chesney’s red state-rooted song “The Boys of Fall” is a good example. It’s an ode to football, from the high school level on up, that’s deeply emotional and totally without irony.

This game really matters to a lot of people, even if the New York Times so often portrays it in a negative light. As is true of sports generally, it binds the young to the old, and directs men, especially, towards a form of combat engagement that doesn’t raze cities. It’s a spiritual experience, an endeavor with almost mystical properties.

Back before sports became a massive industry, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens, his famous work on the importance of “play” in culture generation. In it, Huizinga coined the term “magic circle” to describe the space where we suspend normal rules in favor of a temporary artificial reality, e.g. a game. In Huizinga’s construction, we are under a spell when participating in this reality. Those who break the spell are called “spoil-sports,” a term that’s endured to this day. From Homo Ludens:

The spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion — a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusion, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.

In bringing politics to the magic circle, the leagues themselves have become spoil-sports, breaking the spell over certain fans.

More Money, More Problems

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok tries to explain why many people think that it was easier for families to thrive in bygone generations, even though the economic data say otherwise. He notes nostalgia and the effects of social media, but focuses on the value of time, drawing on a theory expressed by Staffan Burenstam Linder in The Harried Leisure Class.

Tabarrok writes:

Real GDP per capita has doubled since the early 1980s but there are still only 24 hours in a day. How do consumers respond to all that increased wealth and no additional time? By focusing consumption on goods that are cheap to consume in time. We consume “fast food,” we choose to watch television or movies “on demand,” rather than read books or go to plays or live music performances. We consume multiple goods at the same time as when we eat and watch, talk and drive, and exercise and listen. And we manage, schedule and control our time more carefully with time planners, “to do” lists and calendaring.

That can be difficult:

Time management is a cognitively strenuous task, leaving us feeling harried. As the opportunity cost of time increases, our concern about “wasting” our precious hours grows more acute. On balance, we are better off, but the blessing of high-value time can overwhelm some individuals, just as can the ready availability of high-calorie food.

So, whose time has seen an especially remarkable appreciation in the past few decades? Women’s time has experienced a surge in value. As more women have pursued higher education and stepped into professional roles, their time’s value has more than doubled, incentivizing a substantial reorganization of daily life with consequent transaction costs. It’s expensive for highly educated women to be homemakers but that means substituting the wife’s time for a host of market services, day care, house cleaning, transportation and so forth. Juggling all of these tasks is difficult. Women’s time has become more valuable but also more constrained and requiring more strategic allocation and optimization for both spouses. In previous eras, a spouse who stayed at home served as a reserve pool of time, providing a buffer to manage unexpected disruptions such as a sick child or a car breakdown with greater ease. Today, the same disruption requires a cascade of rescheduling and negotiations to manage the situation effectively.

It feels hard.

Covering similar terrain, Matthew Yglesias argues that “if you want a genuine 1950s lifestyle today, you can probably afford it.” He explains:

Middle-class people from the past were poor by our standards. In 1950, the average new single-family home was 983 square feet. If you’re willing to live someplace unfashionable like Cleveland, I can find you a 1,346-square-foot, three-bedroom house for $189,900. That’s an estimated monthly payment of $1,382 per month or $16,584 per year. Let’s say you’re living by the rule of thumb that says housing should be 30% of your annual income. Well, that pencils out to $55,280 per year. Is that out of reach for the modern Ohioan? The BLS says the mean wage for all occupations in the Cleveland metro area is $59,530. There’s no all-occupations median, unfortunately. But for postal service clerks, the median is $56,200. Suppose you know a skilled trade and you can apply for this mechanic job at the airport that pays $32/hour. That’s north of $60k per year.

So what about child care? Summer camp? All that Baumol stuff? Well, it doesn’t matter, because you’re thriving 1950s-style and your wife takes care of all that. People think it’s weird that you guys only have one car, but that’s the ‘50s for you. It’s a 27-minute commute to your job at the airport by metro. You’re four blocks from the elementary school and two blocks from the playground, so mom and the kids are fine to be carless if you need it for the day, and it’s only a 25-minute walk to the shopping center at Kamm’s Corners.

Of course with three kids and a modest income, you’re not taking vacations by airplane or dining out much, but 1950s people didn’t do that either … For $80 you can get a television with a bigger screen and better resolution than what RCA was selling for $400 in 1965.

Provocation of the Week

In Liberties, James Kirchick argues that an important figure in the struggle for gay rights doesn’t get his due:

While Stonewall was the birthplace of gay liberation, the movement for gay civic equality had begun much earlier. After some fizzling starts in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1950’s, the effort found its footing in the more staid precincts of Washington, D.C. The leaders of this cause may not have been “revolting” drag queens, but they were revolutionaries, of a sort.

The central figure was a Harvard-trained astronomer named Franklin E. Kameny. In 1957, Kameny was fired from his job with the Army Map Service on account of his homosexuality. Thousands of people had already been terminated on such grounds, but Kameny was the first to challenge his dismissal, a decision that would, in the words of the legal scholar William Eskridge, eventually make him “the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement.’” In 1960, Kameny appealed to the Supreme Court to restore his job. The petition that he wrote invoked the noblest aspirations of the American founding: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To the government’s claim that his firing was justified on account of its right to prohibit those engaged in “immoral” conduct, Kameny replied with what was, for its time, a radical, even scandalous, retort: “Petitioner asserts, flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that, for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right, and desirable, socially and personally.” He continued: “In their being nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos and prejudices, the policies are an incongruous, anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!”

Inspired by the African-American civil rights movement, Kameny expressed his outrage at being treated as a “second-rate citizen,” and like the leaders of that heroic struggle he appealed to America’s revolutionary founding document for redress:

We may commence with the Declaration of Independence, and its affirmation, as an “inalienable right,” that of “the pursuit of happiness.” Surely a most fundamental, unobjectionable, and unexceptionable element in human happiness is the right to bestow affection upon, and to receive affection from whom one wishes. Yet, upon pain of severe penalty, the government itself would abridge this right for the homosexual.

Kameny’s arguments may have been revolutionary, but his goals were not. He had no desire to overturn the American government; he just wanted it to live up to its self-proclaimed principles. When his appeal to the Supreme Court was denied, Kameny founded the first sustained organization in the United States to represent the interests of “homophiles” (as some gays called themselves at the time), the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., in which capacity he led peaceful protests, wrote letters to every member of Congress, and engaged in public awareness campaigns. In 1965 — four years before Stonewall — Kameny organized the first picket for gay rights outside the White House. Men were required to wear jackets and ties; women, blouses and skirts reaching below the knee. “If you’re asking for equal employment rights,” he instructed his nine comrades, “look employable.” Eight years later, he played a crucial role in lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its register of mental disorders.

To the younger and more militant gay liberationists of New York and San Francisco, Kameny’s dedication to liberal reform reeked of assimilationism. Many of them came to view Kameny with contempt, speaking of him in the same tones with which black nationalists derided Martin Luther King, Jr. With his fussy dress codes, his carefully typewritten letters, and his veneration of the Constitution, Kameny was a practitioner of dreaded “respectability politics,” which for radicals (then and now) has been the great scourge of American liberalism. But Kameny was no conformist. In his petition in 1960, he declared:

These entire proceedings, from the Civil Service Commission regulation through its administration and the consequent adverse personnel actions, to respondents’ courtroom arguments, are a classic, textbook exercise in the imposition of conformity for the sake of nothing else than conformity, and of the rigorous suppression of dissent, difference, and non-conformity. There is no more reason or need for a citizen’s sexual tastes or habits to conform to those of the majority than there is for his gastronomic ones to do so, and there is certainly no rational basis for making his employment, whether private or by the government, contingent upon such conformity.

In 2015—fifty years after staging his picket outside the White House, and four years after his death at the age of eighty-six—Kameny was vindicated when the very Supreme Court that had refused to hear his case of wrongful termination ruled that the Constitution recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry.

That’s all for this week. A happy Fourth of July to my American readers. I’ll be on vacation next week, so I’ll see you all the week after that.

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