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Political Football: Calling a Timeout

October 09, 1988|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

I was browsing through Alistair Cooke's "The Americans" the other day, and I found a passage in which Cooke says that an unnamed American political columnist gave Jimmy Carter 20 numbered pieces of advice just before he was to take office as President.

"The last three," he says, "were about sports. Don't, he urged, use football lingo by way of encouraging your party. Don't talk about team play, or coming through in the last quarter, or giving it that old one-two. Don't invite athletes to the White House for dinner. Don't invite athletes ever. Have the courage to decide with Harry Truman that 'sports is a lot of damn nonsense.'

"This attack of bile, I don't doubt, must have been brought on by unpleasant memories of Mr. Nixon's occupation of the White House, for nobody in American history, I dare say, has given the language of sport such a bad name by using it to recommend a strategy of deceit."

Richard Nixon used to like football as a metaphor for politics, diplomacy and warfare. He was not alone in this. I remember when Gerald Ford, before he succeeded Spiro Agnew as Nixon's vice president, said (regarding some of the spirited criticism of the Nixon Vietnam policy): "You don't go out and tackle your quarterback once he has called the play." I thought at the time that if your quarterback appeared demented and was running in the wrong direction, tackling him mightn't be a bad idea.

I think a great many American men find football talk irresistible as a demonstration of two-fisted he-manship, and I suspect that that is one reason Vice President George Bush, a couple of days after his first debate with Michael Dukakis, gave a speech in which he used a plethora of football images. He had the Democrats "punting on first down," and he said that the Republican team now had the ball and was going to march, march on down the field, and I thought that at any minute he might break into a chorus of "Boola-Boola" and "Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow! Wow! Wow!" As a way of shaking off a wimp image, football lingo probably seems very tempting.

I feel uneasy when powerful public figures shift into the gridiron mode in discussing the life-and-death affairs that affect all of us on this precious, precarious planet. There are just enough similarities between football and war to lure us into confusing the two. Football even has The Bomb.

For those who are too inactive or, like millions of wives, too intellectual to watch football on the tube, where we athletes learn the language, The Bomb is a long forward pass. Our pass receiver scampers through the defensive backfield and makes a dash for the enemy goal line. Our quarterback unleashes The Bomb, a forward pass of perhaps 65 yards that lands on the sticky fingers of the receiver. Our receiver then carries The Bomb jubilantly into the end zone for a touchdown. As bombs go, it's not bad. The only explosion it causes is the roar of the fans, and it's quite harmless to the public.

In another section of Cooke's work, he attempts to enlighten his countrymen on the mysteries of American football. He says, ". . . No American institution is worse understood abroad than American football. British sportsmen . . . succumb without a second thought to the facetious view of American football as a mindless bout of mayhem between brutes got up in spacemen outfits. . . . American football is an open-air chess game disguised as warfare. It is without question the most scientific of all outdoor games."

This, of course, was written years before our football teams went over to capture the hearts and minds of the British.

I hope that, whoever our next President may be, he will stay away from the football metaphor. The trouble isn't so much that it is inept as that it tends to blur the borders between sport, whose impact is fleeting, and the real world, whose impact can be permanent and maybe terminal. When you start thinking of the real world in terms of quarterbacks, punting, first downs and marching on down the field, it is difficult not to think also in terms of half-times, closing minutes and final guns.

And when you start thinking of such unreal particulars as the final seconds of the closing minutes, and you decide that it's time to use the bomb, and when it is truly in your power to use The Bomb, the final guns could be not just the final guns, but the honest-to-God beginning of the no-kidding final guns--and that is very frightening.

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