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When Politicans Butt Into Sportsy Things

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If Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo leaves for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'll be at peace with the move. Then again, I'm just one person whose allegiances don't lie with the Spartans. Unlike Debbie Stabenow.

Debbie Stabenow / Getty ImagesShe's not just any ol' Sparty fan. She's also one of Michigan's senators. Along with six Michigan U.S. representatives, she wrote a letter to Coach Izzo asking him to stay in East Lansing and reject the Cavaliers' alluring offer to make him rich enough to be LeBron James' manservant.

A portion of the letter:

Coach Izzo, you certainly have had great success on the basketball court, with an NCAA National Championship, six Final Four appearances and four National Coach of the Year awards … Far more important than that in our eyes, however, is that you have been an ambassador for Michigan, a philanthropist and the kind of leader of student athletes of whom every Michigander can be proud.

The knee-jerk reaction (which you'll find in just about any comment thread tied to this story) is that politicians have far bigger problems than a basketball coach changing jobs. Wars, leaking oil, health care, immigration, and the pothole outside my driveway. This has always been my inclination, too. GET BACK TO WORK YOU BUMS; LET ME WORRY ABOUT THE IMPORTANT SPORTS THINGS! (See, I can say that, because I pay their taxes.)

Is it all right for politicians to take a break and publicly opine about sports?

Isn't that what we all do at work?

We're all busy laypeople. We've shattered the 40-hour workweek to get shit done, and yet we commit ourselves to football pools, March Madness brackets, and the typical cubicle prairie dog convo about last night's game. We're on the company clock, dudes! Why, the World Cup is costing your employers millions!

But it's more than simply an entertainment itch that we all must scratch. Stabenow and company are doing this for a few reasons:

(1) Traditional wisdom dictates that if you can agree with someone on nothing, at least you'll find common ground in sports. Hey, it's a start.

(2) It helps make politicians look a little more human. Hey, they like the things I like. What's your favorite burger, Mrs. Senator?

(3) Perhaps the most useful reason: this promotes their territory. Tom Izzo is an iconic figure in not just the Michigan sports scene, but in general. That's why he was asked to be part of this "Pure Michigan" commercial:

(Oddly enough, Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman is also in this commercial. If you're ever in Tampa, tell him we said "hi.")

From the look on your face, I can tell you're sick of the story by now. Michigan's been losing jobs, and talented folk have been moving elsewhere. It's no fun to experience, and it's rerun more on your TV than Law & Order.

Still, it's applicable. In a way, Izzo staying in Michigan would be somewhat symbolic for the state in that, hey, the money might be better elsewhere, but if you've got a good thing going at home ($3 million a year is, last I checked, doin' pretty good), why break the trend? Especially now, when Izzo might have the No. 1 team in 2010-11.

Tom Izzo / Getty ImagesBorn a Youpper, Izzo has been the Spartans head coach for the last 15 years. Tack on another dozen years as an MSU assistant coach. During that time he's recruited the best players within and from afar. Look at all that — and tell me why our elected officials would not want to take a half hour out of their day and recognize "an ambassador for Michigan." And, if they can, coerce him to stay. (It's not too late, Congress, to pass some kind of law banning it.)

Besides, Stabenow butted into sports earlier this month, pleading to Major League Baseball to overturn Jim Joyce's "safe" call and give Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga an official perfect game. Okay … this one really isn't about a guy leaving (not unless Galarraga wins 20 games this year and is signed by the Dodgers) but it's still a celebration of a guy representing the state.

Sports aren't "important" in the granular box score sense, but they are unduly crucial to the soul of communities. The late Ernie Harwell always saw the parallel between the blue collar Detroit Tigers to the lunchpail fans and laborers of the metro area. Fanbases and teams are symbiotic. The Lakers are glitzy, as evidenced by season ticket holders like Jack Nicholson. SEC fans reserve Sunday for mass and Saturday for football, while the players are just as devoted. Recently, the Rust Belt has seen many of their star players leave for the coasts … and so have the fans.

The state's future doesn't exactly lie within Izzo's decision, but Stabenow and company at least appreciate the value of the Michigan work ethic. Even if I don't agree with them on other important issues. Such as officializing the Galarraga perfect game.

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  • I suppose there is a case to be made that Ms Stabenow is doing her job, viz. promoting the General Welfare. Not to mention the pursuit of Happiness – the people of Michigan’s, that is, not necessarily Mr Izzo’s.