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A convention bursting with white guys and jock talk // The messages in all those sports metaphors

I hate to be a spoilsport. Usually, I try to look upon politics with as jock-ular a spirit as any other fan.

But from my seat in the convention grandstand, this city is beginning to sound more like Atlanta than San Diego. Ever since Bob Dole picked the 61-year-old and forever-former football player Jack Kemp to be his vice presidential candidate, it's getting hard to tell C-SPAN from ESPN. It's all sports, all the time.

At least in Atlanta sports was the subject. In San Diego, it's just the metaphor.

The kickoff of this year's linguistic Super Bowl came when Bob Dole explained that he wanted the man for the No. 2 spot to be a 10 and got a 15. This, it turns out, was the number Jack wore when he played for the Buffalo Bills.

The Kemp pick created an athlete's foot-in-mouth disease among politicians, pundits and headline writers. Sunday-morning political quarterbacks reverted to primal jock-talk in analyzing the pros and cons of taking this guy off the bench. Was this a Hail Mary pass? Or a touchdown?

Kemp detractors talk about the "quarterback mentality" of a guy who "called all the plays." Kemp supporters like Bill Bennett counter with, "He's a quarterback. He's trying to bring everybody together and go in the same direction."

Meanwhile Kemp, whose obsession with sports was so great that his college dissertation was on the forward pass, has been talking non-stop about going into "huddles," being on the "second string" and playing "running back." He promises, "Bob, you are the quarterback, I am your blocker, and we're going all the way."

The only relief from this football talk was when the new duo reached for Olympian heights. Kemp talked gleefully about winning "a silver medal." Dole said, "Everything before has been a warm-up lap, a trial heat. But here in San Diego the real race begins. We're going for the gold."

Well, I have no idea if this presidential campaign is a whole new ballgame or if it's going to be a real horse race. During a modest and uncompetitive jog around the convention floor I found more delegates who talked about Kemp's energy and rah-rah spirit than his politics. But with the New York Post dubbing Jack and Bob the San Diego Chargers, I feel trapped in training camp for a verbal season of 10-yard lines, first downs and last quarters and assorted field goals.

So here, in the glittering August of this Pacific coast, I must utter my quadrennial and so-far utterly futile cheer: Block those sports metaphors!

This is a personal campaign that I have waged since Republicans were promising to win one for the Gipper. It is, however, bipartisan. Indeed my favorite mixed, no, Cuisinart-ed, sports metaphor came in 1984 when Florida's Lawton Chiles described the "game plan" for Walter Mondale's presidential debates this way: "It's like a football game. . . . Mondale can't get the ball back with one big play. But the American people love a horse race. I would advise him not to knock Reagan out."

Sports metaphors have abounded ever since the first campaign was called a race and the first winner was called a, well, winner. But they come with the same old subliminal message that you cannot be a political player without knowing the score. Which comes with the linguistic message that in politics, like football, men still call the shots.

The rules of the game may be changing, but most women do not drop back and punt, or make passes (at least not those kind of passes). We do not use locker-room language or towel-snapping humor. We do, however, vote and run for office. And, as Republican gender-gap advisers have warned, sports-talk is not our native language.

Most important for all word-watchers, sports metaphors are the way our language fuses and confuses "running" with governing, "winning" with leading.

Becoming president is not a gold medal event, it's not the Super Bowl, and Nov. 5 is not the last day of the presidential season, it's the first. Hold that line.

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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