The Language of Sports and Politics


by Nick Bryant, BBC

Sport and politics in the mix

It is often said that sport and politics should never mix. But increasingly they share the same language and terminology. Just eaves-drop on the “race for the White House” as it reaches its “home-stretch” – or, as you will hear American political pundits often describe it, “the bottom of the ninth” (the final, often dramatic, innings of a baseball game). It is probably too early for the “frontrunner” Barack Obama to start “running down the clock” (cautious tactics used by the team ahead in the final minutes of a basketball match designed to protect its lead). The final presidential debate lies ahead, where Mitt Romney will doubtless be looking for a “knock-out punch” (one of the few analogies that requires no translation outside of America).
Even after the debates, there may still be time to hurl a “Hail Mary pass” (a desperate long pass thrown by the quarterback in the dieing minutes of an American football game in the hope of getting a touchdown). Certainly, he needs a “game-changer” (some dramatic “play” that will upend the contest). In the all-important battleground state of Ohio, the Romney camp has accused the Obama campaign of already “spiking the football” (a touchdown celebration when the player spears the ball into the ground).

The man not the ball

It is the same across the political Anglo-sphere. At Westminster, cricketing metaphors are not uncommon. “The sticky wicket” (a difficult playing surface); “the straight bat” (a defensive stroke); the “hit for six” (a flamboyant, attacking shot that dispatches the ball over the playing boundary). In Aus-tralia, the preferred national metaphor is a sporting one: the country “punches above it weight.” In the daily rough and tumble of Canberra life, politicians also often accuse each other of playing “the man not the ball.” In Canada, ice hockey naturally provides the analogies. Politicians are sometimes described as “pylons” (hopeless defenders that attackers can skate round at will). Occasionally they have to “stickhandle” an issue (which means to retain possession of the puck with some artful individual stick play).

Against Jogi Löw...

In the summer, the Euro 2012 football championship became a metaphor for the Eurozone debt crisis. Group C, which included Ireland, Italy and Spain, was labelled the “Group of Debt.” When Germany came to be pitted against Greece in the quarter-final, it was inevitably dubbed the “Bail-out game.” Germany’s 4-2 victory seemed to represent the natural economic order. Or, as Bild put it: “Be happy dear Greeks, the defeat on Friday is a gift. Against Jogi Löw, no rescue fund will help you.”

The race for President

Still, it is in US presidential politics that sports-speak is most prevalent. During the convention season, the test of a speech is whether it is “hit out of the park” or remains within the confines of the auditorium – which, fittingly, now tends to be a sports arena. At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, for instance, Bill Clinton was deemed to have “hit a home run for Obama.” The previous night, the First Lady Michelle Obama had also “swung for the fences” and connected. So when it came for the President to “step up to the plate,” this was how the veteran commentator Mark Shields framed Barack Obama’s address - or, as he described the speech in a panel discussion on the American television network PBS, his “at bat.” “He can't get by with a ground rule double tonight [when a batter is allowed to advance to second base when the ball has bounced out of the playing area]. He has got to hit a home run.” Then, switching sports and metaphors, he added: “I mean, they [Clinton and Michelle Obama] have set a bar that is that high.”

Convention coverage

Convention coverage is modeled on half- and full-time sports shows, with pundits perched in glass-fronted skyboxes providing a running commentary on the action down below. “Did she move the ball?” asked a US cable anchor at the Republican convention in Tampa, lapsing into gridiron-speak, after Ann Romney had just wrapped up her speech. Then he threw to correspondent on the convention floor, mopping up reaction much like a touchline reporter at the end of a football game. Even the favoured bellow of convention delegates started out as a sports chant:
“U-S-A, U-S-A.” In print as well, front-page campaign news is delivered often in back page prose. In a classic of the genre, this was how the New Yorker described Mitt Romney’s decision to pick the Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his Vice-presidential running mate. “Such an abrupt reversal smacks of desperation,” wrote political reporter John Cassidy. “Not a Hail Mary pass,
exactly, but akin to a struggling N.F.L. team that suddenly decides to adopt the wildcat formation and rely on fakery” (an attacking move where the ball is “snapped” directly to the running back rather than the quarterback).  

Home runs

For Charles Krauthammer, a columnist with the Washington Post, the Ryan choice was one of the few times during the campaign when Romney showed boldness, hence his lament: “For six months, he’s been matching Obama small ball for small ball” (an offensive strategy in baseball that is slow, deliberate and methodical rather than relying on home runs that are hit out of the park). 

In the ring

In the televised presidential debates, boxing supplies the metaphors. The talk is of ‘knockout punches,” even though relatively few debates have finished with much blood on the canvas. In the classic Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, the first in US political history, it was not the then Vice-president’s glass jaw that was the problem but rather his sweaty upper lip. Go back and study the tapes: from Kennedy, you will not find a “smackdown” blow. Success in the debates often bestows upon the winning candidate “the Big Mo” (unstoppable momentum), a phrase that has become such an integral part of the political vocabulary that it is easy to forget that it comes from 1960s gridiron football. 

Hire a new coach

Politicians speak this sporting patois just as fluently as journalists and pundits. Earlier this month, as the college football season got underway, Mitt Romney urged voters to hire a “new coach” because “it‘s time for America to see a winning season again.” Obama responded in kind with a string of sporting
analogies: with an “economic playbook” so badly flawed, he said, Romney would produce a “losing season.” During the primary season, one of the more memorable moments came when the Texan governor Rick Perry tried to revive his hapless campaign ahead of the Iowa caucus by likening himself to Tim Tebow, a quarterback with the New York Jets famed for producing miraculous come-from-behind victories. 

A linguistic perspective

Linguistically speaking, should sport and politics mix? Media commentators have long bemoaned a style of campaign coverage known as “horserace journalism,” in which the contest becomes everything - although a better description might be “play-by-play journalism.” Strategies and tactics subsume policies and ideas. Politicians tend to be judged as players in the political game, rather than as potential leaders. I know this to be true, because, as a one-time BBC Washington correspondent, I fell back on these analogies myself.

Serious-minded policy analysis and beyond

Each electoral cycle, news organization vow to cover the issues in depth, and not be consumed by gaffes and trivialities that habitually dominate coverage. But while there is no shortage of serious-minded policy analysis, reporters generally end up commentating on the game, with a scoreboard constantly updated with the latest polls. Given the hurtling pace of modern-day news, and the demands for rapid response online analysis, horserace journalism has, if anything, got worse. Who is up or down is now a matter of instant judgment and, in the main, pinched thinking. 

The battle is lost and won

Soon this interminably long race will be over – it is a marathon, remember, not a sprint – and there will follow another of the great rituals of campaign coverage. Correspondents will identify the single moment the election was won or lost, or the strategy or move that led to defeat – which will seem obvious now, even if it wasn’t at the time. Needless to say, the Americans have a name for this kind of post-match analysis: “Monday morning quarterbacking.”