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Posted: Friday September 5, 2008 11:03AM; Updated: Friday September 5, 2008 3:55PM
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When sports and politics collide

Story Highlights
  • Politicians and commentators use sports as a way to connect to people
  • The Democratic and Republican conventions were filled with sports hyperbole
  • Throughout history many high-ranking politicians have shown their love of sports
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President Bush has a number of connections to sports and loves to mountain bike when he's at his Texas ranch.
President Bush has a number of connections to sports and loves to mountain bike when he's at his Texas ranch.
AP

By Austin Murphy, SI.com

Those of us who toil in journalism's toy department do so under orders never to breach The Firewall. As a sportswriter, we are told, you must never allow your politics to seep into your prose. Readers come to us seeking respite and escape; surcease from the cares of the world. So it simply won't do to cause them discomfort by bringing up the policies and peccadilloes, the wide stances and extramarital romances of our elected officials. Passages on politics, favoring either red or blue, will be deleted by pencils red and blue. Lions and Bears, yes. Donkeys and elephants, no.

I've had multiple occasions, in recent days, to reflect on what a one-way street it is. The Firewall is semi-permeable. We can't go there, but our journalistic cousins covering politics -- and the pols themselves -- cannot resist coming here.

Note the Gustav-like deluge of references to John McCain's vice presidential pick as "McCain's Hail Mary." (Extra credit to the Huffington Poster Mike Bonifer, who argues that the selection of Sarah Palin was more of a fumblerooski.) Only slightly less popular: the description of Palin -- a driving force behind the start of the Iditarod dog sled race, by the way -- as "a game changer."

And consider the case of Hillary Clinton's IED (Incredible Expanding Dinger) from the second night of the Democratic National Convention. So comprehensively did the Senator exceed expectations (in some quarters) with her unifying speech that its legend commenced growing before she could get off the stage. Governor Bill Richardson's assessment, that she'd smote a "huge, 500-foot home run," was one of least generous of the night.

Finding that estimate far too modest was an excitable and possibly sober fellow manning the barricade at MSNBC's Union Station set, who credited Hill with a "700-foot" jack. Which begs the questions: How are they measuring these moonshots? Was there a single DNC speaker who didn't "hit it out of the park"? Would it be too insulting to Joe Biden if we simply gave him a standup double? Who knew that the Pepsi Center would turn out to be more of a hitter's park than Coors Field?

Finding the notion of a tape measure too constraining in the face of such an oratorical milestone, Keith Olbermann gushed that Clinton "hit a five-run homer tonight." The anchor's hyperbole only egged on his guest, the rasping and alarmingly wild-eyed Clinton campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, who insisted, "That ball is still flyin'!"

If only the metaphors had been limited to baseball. Our current lame-duck chief executive, to whom Democrats seek to bind John McCain with baling wire, has repeatedly pointed out that, as Americans, "we don't torture." But how else to describe the heaping, one upon the other, of sports metaphors in last Tuesday's MSNBC broadcast?

Invoking the inspired Harriet Tubman/Underground Railroad passage from Clinton's speech, Chris Matthews achieved a kind of metaphorical hat-trick, a hideous, part-man, part-beast construction mixing football, track and equestrian: "This was a way to carry the ball forward ... It was like she was passing the ball [to Barack Obama] ... like the baton in a relay. It was a relay!" Moments later, he credited Clinton with mounting Obama "on the horse and sending him forward."

Calling Matthews to account for his rhetorical crimes against humanity, Tom Brokaw archly noted that between the running, baton-passing and horse-mounting, "it was a complex assignment [Clinton] had tonight."

Radiating gravitas, Brokaw was not required to sit with the network's expert panel at its street-level set, which, with its near proximity to the rabble, bore an uncanny resemblance to ESPN's College Football GameDay, replete with irreverent signs. (My favorite: McCain-Ditka '08).

Playing the role of Desmond Howard, in that case, was Harold Ford, the former Tennessee Congressman who floated around the set, pitching in where he could. He's got some extra time on his hands these days. It was Ford who famously told reporters, during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate run, "I love Jesus, I love women and I love football."

I am one of you, in other words. Sure, sports lingo is co-opted by political writers to render interesting that which is often dry and arcane ("McCain is grinding out yardage like a determined fullback as he heads closer to GOP pay dirt" -- San Jose Mercury News, 2/6/08). But the main reason for this vast overlap between sport and "bloodsport," as fresh-out-of-prison ex-Ohio Congressman Bob Ney refers to politics, is simple.

Politicians are eager -- desperate, even -- to be seen as populist, likeable, just plain folks. It's why I was invited, along with a handful of other journalists, toride mountain bikes with President Bush on his Crawford ranch three summers ago. His handlers hoped that a string of stories on his cycling prowess might briefly deflect the nation's gaze from the war in Iraq, which was going south in a hurry. We, the members of Peloton One, were reminded of this state of affairs when the gregarious Ken Herman of the Cox Newspapers referred to our bicycle seats as "weapons of ass destruction."

Bush, of course, was once a part owner of the Texas Rangers. His father captained the Yale baseball team. Through the years, political rivals have sought to turn their association with America's Game against them. Most recently, it was Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, riffing in the Pepsi Center:

"It was once said of the first George Bush that he was born on third base and thought he'd hit a triple. Well ... George W. Bush came into office on third base, and then he stole second."

Such wisecracks notwithstanding, it can only help a pol to bring an athletic background to the table. Part of Sarah Palin's appeal, of course, is her athletic past. An ex-high school point guard -- her nickname, "Sarah the Barracuda," hints at her style of play -- the governor is a self-described "Hockey Mom" and avid moose hunter who once told Vogue that her favorite meal was "Moose stew after a day of snowmachining."

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