The Sports Problem in American Politics

2012 GOP contender Tim Pawlenty's hockey skills would make him a better president.

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It occurs to me, as some of us happily come in from the sweltering D.C. heat to watch men race around the ice in pursuit of a large trophy cup, that our political problems are due in part to the fact that our sports values are in all the wrong places.

This is a country of baseball and football fans, largely, with basketball a strong second. Hence the sports metaphors that infiltrate our political and public policy dialogue: They’ve moved the goalposts. He didn’t keep his eye on the ball. They hit a home run on that one. He was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple. The nature of the sports themselves, and of the analogies they produce, is overwhelmingly focused on the goal itself, as opposed to the finessing that must be accomplished to succeed. [See a slide show of the 2012 GOP contenders.]

As Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration staffer and hockey fan, cleverly points out, in hockey-obsessed Canada, the analogies are different in politics. Someone might say, for example, that achieving a certain policy compromise or political goal will require "some fancy stick handling." The very nature of hockey involves the qualities congressmen and administration officials need to work out legislative compromises: teamwork and an ability to adjust to changing situations very quickly. Tim Pawlenty, a GOP contender for president, certainly has some challenges facing him as he seeks his party’s nomination, but irrespective of politics, I confess I like the idea of having a hockey player in the White House. Here is someone who is used to—quite literally—balancing for long periods of time, making quick decisions, and being willing to let a teammate make the goal for the sake of the greater good. And there’s always the looming threat of the penalty box if he behaves badly (and such a public humiliation might be far more effective than, say, the Ethics Committee). Instead, we have all these presidents playing golf. What is that? It’s not even a real sport; it’s a game. And while I imagine that the focus and skill golf requires indeed helps commanders-in-chief get some much-deserved relaxation, it doesn’t put policymakers in the mindset of working together. So, lace up your skates, folks.

Oh—and go, Bruins.

  • See a slide show of the 2012 GOP contenders.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • Vote now: Is the GOP 2012 field weak or strong?