In June, Twitter beef between late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and Senator Ted Cruz ended in an one-on-one game of basketball. It was neither the first nor the last time that basketball played into Cruz’s political life. He started a weekly pickup game at the Russell Senate Office Building to help rehab relationships with his colleagues on the Hill (Tim Scott, Jared Kushner, and Democrat Brian Schatz are known to show up to compete). And this week, The Atlantic ran a long profile of Cruz in which the author, Ben Strauss, laced up his sneakers and got to know the senator’s strategy on the court—and how that can help him politically:
I found Cruz to be the consummate teammate. He screened when we had the ball; he switched on defense, always calling out which direction the screen was coming from. And he was a willing passer. He and I won a few games together and after one play, in which he drove the lane and scooped up what almost looked like a finger roll, a thought dawned on me: I’d play basketball with Cruz even if I weren’t writing about him.
At this point, Cruz might be wishing that he could settle the race to keep his Senate seat on the court too. A recent Texas Lyceum poll had his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, down just two points (there is a sixteen-point gap between Governor Greg Abbott and his Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez). Cruz’s and O’Rourke’s camps have struggled to agree on issues like scheduling debates. Cruz’s campaign has clumsily gone after O’Rourke for jamming with Willie Nelson, and then bizarrely compared him to Whataburger. Meanwhile, O’Rourke is hoping that fundraising momentum can translate to electoral success—something that didn’t happen the way he’d planned it during the primary. There are a lot of unknowns to deal with heading into election day. A first-to-fifteen game of one-on-one, meanwhile, settles everything a lot more quickly and cleanly.
So, what are the pros and cons of determining the 2018 Texas Senate election with a basketball game?
PRO: Nobody can hack a basketball game
This past weekend, it took ten minutes for an eleven-year-old to hack a replica of Florida’s voting system. Our woefully inadequate computerized system has made electoral security a real issue. Even the possibility that our elections have been tampered with reduces confidence in the whole process, which in turn makes it harder for anyone to effectively govern.
You know what can’t be hacked, though? A basketball game. There might be the occasional blown call or ticky-tack foul, but A) all of that happens out in the open, and B) if you play to a high enough score, that stuff tends to balance out over the course of the game. Barring rare exceptions, the person who won the basketball game wins the basketball game, and everybody knows it. It’d be nice to return to that sense of certainty in our elections.
CON: It is inherently undemocratic
The Seventeenth Amendment establishes the direct election of U.S. Senators. The text of the amendment is brief—just 134 words—and it doesn’t say anything about basketball. Would it require a constitutional amendment to make this legal? Is that what it would take to add the words “or they could play basketball for it” to the Constitution?
Maybe. In some situations, there are ways to circumvent constitutional requirements without passing an amendment. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, for example, would effectively eliminate the electoral college if enough states passed laws requiring them to award all of their electors to whoever won the national popular vote. Would a similar process be possible to allow Texas to neatly sidestep the Seventeenth Amendment, if voters all agreed to cast their ballots for whoever won the basketball game? We’re not constitutional scholars, but it sounds OK to us.
CON: That still doesn’t address the fact that winning a basketball game doesn’t mean you’re qualified to serve in the Senate
If playing basketball well was all it took to run the country, we might be governed by James Harden, or perhaps Dirk Nowitzki (after he applied for U.S. citizenship, of course). Inarguably, it is not the best indicator of political acumen.
But, hey—our current system has produced some pretty bad leaders, so what the heck? How much worse could it get if, instead of a talent for raising campaign contributions, pandering to voters, and gerrymandering districts, a talent for crossovers and jump shots were what earned a person high office? In 67 percent of presidential elections, the taller candidate wins anyway—maybe this doesn’t really make anything worse.
PRO: It would finally get money out of politics
Beto O’Rourke first began doing press around his Senate run way back in February 2017. Since then, he’s been traveling the state, hand-selling his campaign to voters in every county. One of the reasons he and Cruz have been unable to confirm a debate schedule is that they each have governing responsibilities as members of Congress. O’Rourke has also opined about the negative effects of “call time,” a process by which members of both parties spend hours every day calling up donors to ask for campaign cash. It’s both a waste of time and a pernicious way that money influences and corrupts our political process.
Settling everything on the court takes all of that out of the equation, though. Even if candidates have to spend hours a day working on their form, it’s healthier and more productive than sitting in a dank cubicle, hitting up their party’s donors for handouts. And who would have outsized influence in our campaigns—coaches? Imagine an America in which names like the Koch Brothers and George Soros were irrelevant, and the political boogeymen were replaced by Bobby Knight and Gregg Popovich. The era of Big Money would be over—instead, we’d be entering the era of Big Fundamentals.
PRO: At least this would be entertaining
Politics have the ability to inspire us. They can motivate people to imagine a world in which ideals are at the forefront, in which impassioned arguments sway the hearts and minds of people who want to be led by people who share their vision for America.
Or, you know, they can not do that. In many campaigns, we’re stuck with some combination of dishonest, uninspiring, self-interested, or ideologically mushy candidates. Voting for one of them may be a civic duty, but it’s often not one that feels like a whole lot of fun. You know what is fun, though? Watching basketball.
In that regard, the race between Cruz and O’Rourke is something of a rarity—regardless of your opinion of either candidate, they’re both motivated by ideology, and passionate about their competing visions for Texas and the nation. Even if you dislike their ideology and disagree with their values, at least we can believe that those things are what get these guys out of bed. It is, presumably, part of what’s made this race such a compelling one nationally. In that way, maybe Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke is the rare campaign that’s almost as interesting to watch play out politically as it would be to watch on the court. Almost.