Monday, February 5, 2018


Football— the language of US politics while baseball reflects the American Dream
                             Howard Richler

This Feb 4th  marks  Superbowl LII, arguably the biggest sporting event of the year  in North America.  For those who aren’t aficionados of the sport of football, bear in mind that you should at least understand  its lingo in order to comprehend American politics. This epiphany came to me last March when I was watching a CNN panel discussion on the attempt by Republicans to reach an agreement on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Before a vote on this issue was scheduled to occur, one analyst stated that “going into the locker room at half-time the Republicans realized that they had placed no points on the board.” After the vote to repeal was cancelled due to the lack of support for the motion another commentator said, “they{the Republicans} punted.” And if you don’t agree with the political opinions being offered by someone, it’s best to call them an “armchair quarterback.” This can be defined as someone whose opinions can be discounted because of their lack of expertise or experience to defend their position. I espied one online headline that stated that “In Political Discourse, Social Media Has No Shortage of Armchair Quarterbacks.”
This is but Exhibit A proving that politics is merely a slightly less concussed version of football. For example, a “Hail Mary” pass in football is one with low probability of success and is therefore only attempted in dire circumstances, such as the last play of the game. So when Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, language columnist William Safire quipped “Only in America can you turn to a Jew for your Hail Mary pass” because Lieberman had been one of the few Democrats to castigate Bill Clinton for his sexual peccadilloes. Another football term oft used in politics is “ground game” and years ago I heard several commentators attribute Obama’s two electoral victories to a strong “ground game,” which refers to  strong local organizations and systematic grass roots activity with direct contact with voters. Still another football term that has reached the political arena is “blindsided.”  Since the 17th century “blind side” has referred to the obscured part of one’s field of vision but by the 1970s in football it came to mean to tackle or block an opponent from the blind side. If the block has come from behind it will result in a major penalty against the blocker’s team. Here again the use of the term has expanded. You will find many references on how investors were “blindsided” by the recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.  Also, I entered “blindside + Trump” into Google and received 374,000 hits! For example, one headline declared “Trump’s Tweets Often Blindside Advisers in High Level Policy Discussions.”
Some years ago I attended a lecture in Montreal by Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua in which he explained that national literatures exhibit particular motifs and that the crux of American literature is the pursuit of the American Dream — success. So  while football terms may be the preferred  sports vehicle to describe events in the political arena, baseball metaphors reign supreme in describing the American obsession with perceived success.  Many baseball phrases are metaphors for success, and when we “step up to plate” hopefully   we’ll be successful we’re and “have a lot on the ball,” “a lot of clout,” “perform in the clutch,” “cover all the bases” and “make a hit.” Those with the greatest influence in society are called “heavy hitters,” and ultimate success is dubbed “batting one thousand.” In some ways this association of successful baseball hitting with success is ironic because as former baseball great Ted Williams said: “Baseball is the only field of endeavour where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”
There is even a subset of baseball terms to measure success in the sexual arena.  A man who is trying to seduce  a woman runs the risk of “striking out” and that it’s worse if you strike out “swinging”  rather than “looking” (not swinging) because the former implies you gave it your best effort and still failed. And as is well-known, the base a man reaches highlights his level of success. First base= kissing,  second base= moderate fondling, third base=extreme fondling with the ultimate goal being of hitting a home run, i.e. scoring.  Still other baseball terms relate to sexual preference rather than success.  In baseball, a switch hitter is one who can bat from either side of the plat;, in sexual terms this person is bisexual. Someone who “plays for the other team” is gay.
Historian Jacques Barzun said that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better know baseball.  Agreed, however, some knowledge of football is probably necessary to understand the bizarre world of American politics.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.