From Football to Politics, a Season of Upsets

February 8, 2008

It all started with Appalachian State. After a blocked field goal, the unranked, unknown football team from Boone, North Carolina beat the crap out Michigan –at home, in the Big House, the largest stadium in the country. Commentators unanimously called the debacle “The Greatest Upset in College Football History.” Seemed shocking at the time. Then it happened again. I just happened to be sitting in the stands when the Oregon Ducks– yes, Ducks– creamed the Wolverines by an embarrassing margin–39 to 7.

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Fans streamed out of the stadium well before the game ended. Some were angry. Most were dumbfounded. What is going on here? The world seemed turned on its head.

I have to admit, as a Proud Penn State alum, I found it somewhat amusing. Until Michigan beat us the following week. Another win for the underdog.

But this is exactly my point. Nothing is sure these days. From football to politics, 2007-08 has been a season of upsets. They just keep coming, one after the next.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and compare Hillary Clinton to the grand aura of Michigan football. Both are institutional heavyweights, deeply entrenched and loaded with money. No one expected Hillary to have to battle for the democratic presidential nomination in the same way no one could have predicted that Michigan’s lobed defense could crumble to a double-A school. But along came an outsider named Barak Obama, just like Appalachian State, out of nowhere, and started racking up points.

Not only has Obama stormed the scene, so has another politician with a funny name. Mike Huckabee. Political analysts and pollsters, who only seemed to pay attention to how much money candidates raised rather than the merits of their campaigns, predicted an early dropout for Huckabee– and for that matter, also for John McCain, who is now kicking everyone else’s butt. Ahem, did I just read that Mitt Romney dropped out of the race? HA! Serves you right, pollsters. The game isn’t over ’til it’s over.

Even Germans are getting a taste of Appalachian State upset action. I know most Germans don’t know a lick about American football, but their politicians certainly do know about upsets. While the primaries are sweeping the US, elections have been taking place in Germany as well, and they have been just as exciting.

In Hessen, the state where I am now living, a politician named Roland Koch met his downfall. After eight years of being the minister president (kind of like a governor), Koch’s re-election campaign backfired in his face. He fell back upon what even the conservative newspapers called “brutal populism” and used a fear-based campaign about youth violence that has been widely acknowledged as outright xenophobic. Watch out, those foreigners might get you! His party, the Christian Democratic Union, even produced posters with a still frame taken from a security camera video where a young Turkish kid is beating up a German man. They cut out the German man and put in the words, “You could be next! Vote CDU!”

To my relief, Germans not only rebuffed the campaign, they outright opposed it. Even high-ranking members of his own party, 17 of them to be exact, wrote an open letter denouncing Koch’s anti-immigrant campaign strategy. As a result, the Christian Democratic Union plummeted in popularity and lost their majority in the state parliament. And like all the other examples I’ve named thus far, there’s an outsider spoiler. In this case, it’s the communists. Again, out of nowhere, Die Linke (literally “the leftists”), previously stronger in the former East German states, ended up with 7 percent of the votes, putting them on par with the Green Party and guaranteeing them seats in parliament. And this in one of the more conservative states in Western Germany. Talk about an upset!

One thing is clear in both the German and U.S. elections. People are not happy with the way things are. They are sick of the divisiveness. I think a majority of Germans realize that most immigrants contribute a lot to society and immigration is critical to this country’s future. And in the U.S., I think most sane people are sick of the “you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality, not to mention the fact that Bush is running the country into the ground by running up budget and trade deficits that most thought was impossible and flushing money away at a rate of $177 million per day for a poorly thought-out war.

That’s what is so great about democracy, when it works, it swings back and forth and self corrects.

No one, whether it’s a football team or a political party, can win all the time. There are going to be upsets. The undefeated New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl. And Hillary might lose the Democratic race for president.

If Obama takes the nomination, it would be a political upset equal to that of that fated Appalachian State game. And like with that game, I am loving every minute of it. I love upsets. But let’s face it, upsets are rare.

The loss to Appalachian State was just a small dent in Michigan’s pre-season schedule. They went on to beat Florida in the Capital One Bowl. But the memory of Appalachian State did have an impact. Michigan’s new coach knows how to deal with a spread offense.

Roland Koch might continue to be Minister President of Hessen if the other parties can’t get their acts together. But his devastating loss has deeply affected German politics. I doubt the CDU will be running another xenophobic, anti-immigrant campaign anytime soon.

And Hillary might well go on to beat Obama. But the fact that he is doing so well is influencing the conversation. (Maybe invading Iraq was a bad idea from the start.)

I like to root for the underdog, but I recognize they can’t win all the time. That’s why they are underdogs. But it is the possibility of an upset that keeps sports and politics interesting. Even if the underdog loses, if they put up a good fight, they can change the game.

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