Dropping the Ball: The Problem With Sports Imagery in Political Campaigns

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The National Football League playoffs began this weekend, concluding with the Super Bowl on February 7th; conveniently sandwiched between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries. Competition and high drama are sure to ensue in each setting. The nexus between sports and politics is strong. For many, politics is sport — complete with winners and losers. Yet, the stakes are so much higher in the political arena and unlike the NFL playoffs, over 200 million Americans actually get to participate in elections across the country. However, citizens are woefully ill-prepared to do so. Much of that blame is due to the candidates themselves and the simplistic imagery they use to frame policy issues. Not surprisingly, a great deal of their imagery is sports related.

Candidates frequently use sports to pander and connect with voters, which is perfectly understandable. For many, sports are an important fabric of American life, and the lexicon of sports is interwoven in the ways we talk about many things in our daily lives, from work to family life.

The use of sports to connect with voters does not always go as planned. For instance, in the third Republican debate, Jeb Bush was lambasted for bragging about his fantasy football team’s 7-0 start. More recently, Carly Fiorina’s support for the Iowa Hawkeyes Football team against Stanford (her alma mater) in the Rose Bowl drew an ocean of social media hate, including the hashtag #CarlyCurse when the Hawkeyes went down 35-0 in the first half.

Although these instances can be considered as ill-fated gaffes, too often, candidates seek to oversimplify complex issues through sporting metaphors and analogies. A chief example can be seen in CIA Director George Tenet’s case for war in Iraq as being akin to a “slam dunk.” The Iraq war has turned out to be one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of the United States’ since the Vietnam War.

As the Syrian civil war continued to deteriorate in 2013, President Obama said that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “game changer.” The term “Game Change” permeated politics after the 2008 election with the publication of the book by the same name detailing John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin. Yet, the situation in Syria is far from a game and such terminology seriously underplays the tragedy that continues to unfold there.

In the 2016 campaign, sports analogies have been rampant. For instance, John Kasich has compared job skills of the American worker to those of NBA players. He also compared Donald Trump to being like a fan in the stands shouting at the players on the field. He suggests that while it may sound good, there is a reason fans are in the stands and you leave the game to those who have the right skills (i.e., professional politicians should be on the field, while inexperienced or outsider candidates should be in the stands).

Donald Trump began his campaign by comparing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ domination over the NFL to that of China’s dominance over the United States. Trump continually discusses the need to have a candidate who is in the “big leagues” and his talk of winners and losers has become a hallmark of his campaign. He repeatedly states that it is time for America to “win again.”

On cue, Jeb Bush indicated on Thursday that it will be a “jump ball” for second in New Hampshire among the Republicans. The fact is that only a real jump ball against his foes may be the best chance Bush has to stimulate his campaign (Both Bush and Trump stand at 6’3, while four of their opponents come in at 5’11 — unless Rubio is in his boots).

In a serious vein, the glut of sports imagery employed by candidates does a major disservice to the American public. With so many vexing public policy challenges, candidates and politicians could use their platforms to inform the public about the challenges facing the country, instead of pandering and oversimplifying complex problems.

Unfortunately, this point extends beyond sports imagery. For instance, a common refrain during budget showdowns is that just as families must balance their own budgets, the government should be able to do the same. While enticing, the analogy eludes a host of important, somewhat arcane, facts about the United States’ role in the global economy and other relevant macroeconomic issues. For a more insidious example, Mike Huckabee recently compared Syrian refugees to a bag of peanuts. “If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and there were about ten peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids?” Yet, the fact remains that Syrian refugees are human beings, not groundnuts.

We all use metaphors and analogies to provide context, tell stories and generally communicate. For many, we actually enjoy hearing politicians talking this way from time-to-time. It takes the intellectual burden off of us to deeply understand complex issues and simply nod our heads and pump our fists into the air. Dana Milbank succinctly notes: “In the perpetual battle to put a ‘W’ in the column of the R’s (in the red jerseys) or the D’s (in blue), the sports talk helps the political class to forget the real human consequences to their games.”

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell prescribes several rules for effective political writing, the first of which is: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” We would do well to heed Orwell’s advice and demand that our politicians retire simplistic analogies and metaphors and seek to truly educate the American people about the issues of the day and their plans to resolve them. Then again, such a suggestion should probably be considered a “Hail Mary…”

Editor’s note: On the heels of one of the more controversial and perplexing NFL Wild Card Weekends, ToM reposted this January 8, 2016 Huffington Post piece co-written by Ohio Northern University Professor of Political Science Robert Alexander and ToM’s own Senior Foreign Policy expert, Adam Gallagher. In addition, to writing for ToM, Adam’s work has appeared in The National Interest, International Policy Digest, and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He can be followed on Twitter @aegallagher10. His most recent piece for ToM focused on David Foster Wallace’s legacy  and its relationship to the film, The End of the Tour