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Patrick Hruby

A Losing War of Words

Dear politicians: Stop using sports metaphors

Like many Americans, I'm deeply worried about the future. Not because of Iraq, or a looming Social Security shortfall, or disappearing honeybees, or even the prospect of another "Rambo" movie.

(Seriously, though: when we last saw Sly Stallone using matches and gunpowder to self-cauterize a gaping flesh wound, he was fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Osama Bin Laden. And possibly Evil Bert.Never mind Sly's Australian HGH bust -- on the mujahideen front, Mr. Juez Dredd has some 'splainin' to do).

No, what has me fretting for our children's children -- beyond the likelihood of future presidents' being elected via "American Idol" -- is a problem that figures to be with us long after the War on Terror is as relevant as the war on Cobra Command and China bails out our defaulting national treasury in exchange for exclusive topless photos of Shiloh Pitt pumping gas. It's a problem that grows more serious with each passing day, a problem, I'm convinced, that ultimately will get all of us blown to smithereens.

I'm speaking, of course, about our government's addiction to asinine sports metaphors.

To borrow a phrase from former CIA director George Tenent, it's a slam dunk: Give our government officials world enough and time, or just a 60-second midday standup on C-SPAN 2, and they inevitably will stumble into tasteless, confusing, ill-conceived and downright dangerous sports analogies, as sure as Bruce Bowen's knees and elbows somehow end up between his opponents' legs.

In both cases, expect nausea.

Don't believe me? Check out John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Freaking Court, missing high and outside with an extended comparison between judges and baseball umpires during his 2005 confirmation hearings. A short list of things abortion and the strike zone have in common: (a) the letters "I," "O" and "N"; (b) see A. Or listen to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), pulling a verbal Bartman on the floor of the House by likening the Iraq war to a Chicago Cubs game, a juxtaposition unfair to both the residents of Wrigleyville (no IED's at the Cubby Bear) and Baghdad (car bombs, yes, but at least they don't have to watch the Cubs).

Just last month, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) became the latest public servant to fumble on the goal line, telling a group of Wisconsin Republicans that families are like football offensive lines, and that "if you don't have a line, how many passes can Peyton Manning complete? Greatest quarterback, maybe, in NFL history."


Realizing his mistake -- that most members of the now booing, groaning crowd would catch the next flight to Mexico if Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's visage appeared on a tortilla in Oaxaca -- Brownback quickly brought up Packers legend Bart Starr, then Favre, attempting to salvage his silly comparison by asking "how many passes does [Favre] complete without a line?"

"All of them!" came a yell from the crowd.

Sufficiently chastened, Brownback dropped the subject. Too bad his peers can't seem to follow suit.

From Hillary Clinton ("Hail Mary Pass") to Ronald Reagan ("The World Series of Tax Reform," which probably would get better ratings than the Stanley Cup finals), leaders and representatives of all ideological stripes have a long, undistinguished, seemingly pathological relationship to stupid sports comparisons, similar to Matt Millen's relationship with wide receivers and the first round of the NFL draft.

In other words, they simply can't help themselves.

This needs to change. Needs to change the way the Los Angeles Lakers need to blow up their roster, before Kobe Bryant sends them a ransom note. For one, sports metaphors are almost always inappropriate. Government debates revolve around serious issues, such as spending public money and dispatching youngsters to kill and be killed in faraway places. Sports debates revolve around slightly less weighty matters, such as leaving Jeremy Shockey off your fantasy team and arguing quien es mas macho, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James?

Of course, don't tell that to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Speaking to reporters about the Iraq war this spring, Gates said that "it's important to defend this country on the extremists' 10-yard line, and not on our 10-yard line." Yipes. Putting aside the question of whether Iraq was even a playing field for Osama and Co. before the 3rd Infantry Division marched on Baghdad, let's run a quick compare-and-contrast between the sport of football and the reality of modern armed combat:

Football vs. Combat
Football Combat
Training camps in the Midwest Detention camps in Cuba
Sock length an issue Body armor an issue
Cut blocks injure knees IEDs incinerate limbs
Gunners cover punts Gunners shoot people
Preseason is torture Torture is torture
Darth Raider Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Roster cuts Violent death

In other words, football and fighting have much in common -- except for, well, everything. Stick war words in the mouth of a jock, and the utter absurdity of likening the two becomes self-evident. Kellen Winslow Jr. was roundly pilloried for calling himself a soldier while playing football at the University of Miami, and rightly so. Just imagine if Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni had ripped the playoff suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw by using a tortured geopolitical metaphor:

You know, my guys broke a rule by leaving the bench. OK. But let the punishment fit the crime. If David Stern is president, does he launch a full-scale invasion of some two-bit country just because they broke a few U.N. sanctions? You'd have to be out of your mind.

See? Patently moronic. And that's not the worst of it. At its memorable best, political rhetoric should be lofty and inspiring. Ask not what your country can do for you … But sports metaphors are prosaic and disposable. They make the extraordinary sound ordinary, exchanging sober gravitas for an unbearable triteness of being. Again, picture some of history's greatest political speeches, only besotted with imbecilic athletic parallels:

• President Reagan at Berlin: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! The way baseball dumped the bullpen car!"

• Lincoln at Gettysburg: " … government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth. Just as rowing, rugby, cricket, boxing and horse racing shall forever remain our nation's most popular sports."

• Churchill before the Battle of Britain: " … we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. Life's a game of inches. So's football. And on this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that's gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!"

If dunderheaded sports metaphors make government officials come off like smaller-than-life cornballs -- and inarguably, that's the ultimate-if-unintended effect -- why do the likes of Roberts and Brownback deploy them in the first place? Hard to say.

Perhaps they're searching for language that appeals to the common man (even though, as pollster Frank Lutz notes, common women are completely turned off by sports talk). Perhaps it's because political and sports bigwigs read the same books: "The Art of War," "Who Moved My Cheese?", Successories catalogs, fawning, ghostwritten autobiographies on the secrets of leadership. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because the one sports-to-politics simile that holds up -- electoral campaigns as horse races -- has conditioned our duly elected and appointed officials to view the entire world through the warped prism of athletic competition.

(Question: Considering he's much more popular in defeat than victory, is Al Gore the Barbaro of presidential politics?)

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: the conflating of sports and the people's business, like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) comparing the Iraq troop surge to a draw play on third-and-20, needs to stop. Posthaste. Beyond being silly and/or insulting, sports metaphors are confusing. They obscure points better made with simple, direct language. And taken to their logical conclusions, they raise more questions than they answer.

Take Lugar. In writing that the surge is "likely to gain a few yards and set up a punt on the next down," is he arguing that the goal of our Mesopotamian escapade is trotting out Sean Landeta? And if so, do we have some sort of fake punt up our sleeve? Or go back to Brownback. His basic point is both important and elementary: Strong families are important. Yet by tarting up his rhetoric with an offensive line comparison, he pancake blocks his message into the turf of uncertainty -- Is society better served by small, nimble families, or big, heavy ones? Should our families be chop-blocking the hell out of everyone else, like the old San Francisco 49ers? Can we trade our family members if they undergo one to too many knee surgeries and lose a few steps?
Also, O.J. Simpson ran behind a pretty good offensive line, and look how his family life turned out.

Point is, sports metaphors reduce the clarity of political thought and speech, which makes their use potentially dangerous. "Dr. Strangelove" dangerous.

And I'm not kidding. Imagine the wrong metaphor slipping into nuclear arms negotiations with Iran, or a future U.S.-China standoff over Taiwan. One murky reference to the World Cup, one misunderstood comparison to Yao Ming, and boom! -- World War III in the Persian Gulf, or "Rambo V" set in Manchuria. Unspeakable horror either way. Which is why I'm so concerned, and why I hope all of our leaders -- Republicans and Democrats and the occasional Green Party irritant alike -- abstain from sports talk, the way Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson have promised to never get in trouble again. After all, a little restraint can go a long way toward making the world a better, safer place. To borrow a phrase, it's a slam dunk.

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