You've got to admire the spunk of a politician who takes on big-time football, even if this is the off-season. Especially when it's a politician who needs the macho vote to get elected.
In a small way, it's like Richard Nixon going to China; a career redbaiter getting away with what no liberal could. In this case, it's sports junkie Dan Lungren scolding football for contributing to America's "culture of violence."
The Republican attorney general was a star linebacker in high school, is a rabid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (his alma mater) and grabs for the sports section first thing every Monday in football season. He's also California's chief cop.
So my ears perked up this week when I heard Lungren speaking to 100 young business executives and lamenting the negative influences of his favorite sport.
He also was bluntly saying something you're not hearing a lot from other Sacramento politicians: that California will never dissuade businesses from packing up, or begin attracting new job-creating enterprises, until it stops paring back law enforcement and starts making people feel safer.
"Think about it," he said. "How can we attract business, tourists and skilled workers and keep them here if they have to worry about making it to work alive or worry about the safety of their children at school?"
Lungren apparently has been saying these things all over California in recent weeks. But state elected officials below the office of governor--except for a political starlet such as Treasurer Kathleen Brown--tend to be like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. They're rarely heard. When they are, however, their rumblings can be more interesting than most.
Take Lungren's criticisms of football.
"Watch the highlights," he said. "Sometimes you see a great run. Sometimes you see a wonderful pass. But you always see the hardest hit. And if the guy's helmet goes flying off, great. And if the guy is knocked out, great. And if the guy is lying there on the ground, absolutely out of it, you've got a guy over the top of him screaming. That is something called trash talk.
"We're all supposed to say that's wonderful. But think about what it is telling our young people: It's not good enough to compete anymore. In fact, it's not even good enough to win anymore. You have to achieve your self-esteem by destroying your opponent. And so the way you become a man is to strip the other person of his manhood.
"I just want to ask you: What is the essential difference between that message and the message of a gang? 'The only way I can be good is to obliterate somebody else. I can kill on the street because I dehumanize the person who is my opponent.' I'm not saying the kids on the street are killing people because they watch too much football. What I am saying is that most of us have bought into this culture of violence. We all have an obligation somehow to deal with it. . . . I'm talking about responsibility."
Later, I asked Lungren if his criticism also applied to boxing and hockey. They're not the same, he replied.
"Boxing is a violent sport but there are rules," he said. "If you saw a guy in the ring screaming at his opponent, the ref would kick the guy out of there."
And yes, he said, hockey is too violent. "But football has become a national religion. It's held on Sunday. You stay home from church to watch it. . . . I'm extremely concerned about the message being sent to young people."
Ditto through entertainment. "I used to be one who didn't believe there was any connection between violent images in music, movies, television and sports and the level of gratuitous violence on our streets," he said. "I now believe I was wrong."
And among the offenders, he acknowledged, are the violent characters played by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, frequently a top draw at Republican fund-raisers.
All of this--the culture of violence and the cutbacks in law enforcement--are fed by "a state of denial," he said. "Too many people are still trying to say they're not affected. We have to stand and fight."
Of course, Lungren passed up an opportunity to fight for the Los Angeles Police Department last month when he remained neutral on Proposition 1, which would have raised property taxes to hire more cops. The measure was supported overwhelmingly by voters, but it failed to receive the required two-thirds majority. Lungren said he stays out of local politics to preserve his effectiveness.
But it's likely the conservative Republican also takes into account that politics--unlike football--is his game now. And it's never off-season for the anti-tax screamers he doesn't want beating on him.