Sports Jargon for Every Occasion

The language of US politics uses football terminology, while that of baseball reflects the American Dream

THIS FEBRUARY 4 the National Football League held Super Bowl LII, arguably the biggest sporting event of the still new year in North America. And for those who aren’t aficionados 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 while I was watching a CNN panel discussion on the efforts by Republicans to reach an agreement on repealing and replacing The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly dubbed Obamacare. Before a vote on the 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 someone’s opinions, it’s best to call them an “armchair quarterback.” This may be defined as a person whose opinions can be discounted because they lack the expertise or experience to defend their position. I once espied this headline on the US Independent Voter Project’s website: “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 therefore only attempted in dire circumstances, during the last play of the game, for example. So when US Vice-President Al Gore selected Connecticut Senator 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.” (In choosing Lieberman, Gore may have hoped to distance himself from President Bill Clinton, whom Lieberman, among many, had castigated for his sexual peccadilloes.)

Another football term oft used in politics is “ground game,” which involves running from scrimmage to advance the ball. Years ago I heard several commentators attribute Obama’s two electoral victories to a strong “ground game,” referring to strong local organizations and systematic grassroots activity that engages directly 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 terminology, “blindside” came to mean to tackle or block an opponent from his 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. And entering “blindside” and “Trump” into Google will yield more than 380,000 results. (“Trump’s tweets often blindside advisers in high-level policy decisions,” reads one Associated Press headline.)

Some years ago I attended a lecture in Montréal 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 terminology may be preferred to describe events in the political arena, baseball metaphors reign supreme in describing the American obsession with perceived success.

When we “step up to the plate” we will (ideally) succeed, and likewise when we “have a lot on the ball,” “have 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 achieved success is dubbed “batting one thousand.” In some ways this association of successful baseball playing with human success is ironic because, as former baseball great Ted Williams once 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 it’s worse if he strikes out “swinging” rather than “looking” because the former implies he gave it his best effort and still failed. And the “base” a man reaches indicates his level of success. First base is kissing; second base is moderate fondling; third base is intense fondling with the ultimate goal of “hitting a home run,” i.e., “scoring.” Still other baseball terms relate to sexual preference: a “switch hitter” is one who can bat from either side of the plate (meaning the individual is bisexual), and someone who “plays for the other team” is gay.

Historian Jacques Barzun once said: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” I would agree; however, some knowledge of football is probably necessary to understand the bizarre world of American politics.

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