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Money Players
Steve Rushin
February 19, 2001
Sports stars and business moguls now share the same language—and the same sort of media coverage
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February 19, 2001

Money Players

Sports stars and business moguls now share the same language—and the same sort of media coverage

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Everyone complains that sports are now merely a business, but the reverse is equally true and somehow more unsettling: Business is now merely a sport. Snap the suspenders of any CEO and a sports metaphor will fall out.

Think baseball is all about the money? To Viacom president and COO Mel Karmazin, who runs CBS, money is all about the baseball. (Says Karmazin, of aging Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone: "The man has not lost his fastball.")

Think basketball is little more than big business? To Philip Hammarskjold, a managing director of the venture capital firm Hellman & Friedman, big business is little more than basketball. (He sees marketing and advertising firm Young & Rubicam as "a slam dunk of an investment opportunity.")

Think the Olympics are overly commercialized? Paul Elliot, CEO of Open Mind, makes commercialism overly Olympicized. (He says his partnership with Smarthinking "raises the bar for the entire textbook publishing industry")

Why do corporate chiefs now speak like Kansas City Chiefs—even when their corporation is based in Hong Kong? ("Ng Cheung-shing," reports Asian Business of the CEO of Computer & Technologies, "knows only too well that no matter how focused an entrepreneur is, someone will keep moving the goalposts") Answer: Because many chief executives fancy themselves athletes—only more gifted and more rigorously challenged. As a magazine called Chief Executive boasts, "In the world of the go-go funds...there are no mulligans for CEOs who miss their shot."

It stands to reason that countless chief executives are frustrated athletes: If you can't make the playoffs, make the layoffs. But that doesn't go far enough. Rather, countless chief executives have become indistinguishable from professional athletes—with the phone-number salaries, the private-jet travel, the win-at-all-costs competition. And, most astonishingly, the dizzying celebrity.

Dozens of publications like Chief Executive do journalistic jock sniffing, or its corporate equivalent. (Monogrammed boxer snorting?) On television, cable network CNBC covers business in almost exactly the way ESPN covers sports: with its ever-vigilant ticker, its nightly wrap-up of the day's highlights, its satellite interviews with the stars: Jack Welch! Steve Jobs! Larry Ellison!

The phenomenon is most apparent in the language: Hand this off to Henderson. Don't drop the ball. Pick it up and run with it. Get a ballpark figure. Put our ducks in a row. (The last phrase is from duckpin bowling, in which pin monkeys had to do just that.) Easy decisions are gimmes, layups or slam dunks, while European magnates speak in the soccerese of "own goals" (self-inflicted damage) and getting "wrong-footed" (caught unprepared—or what the American tycoon might call, with a nod to the sweet science, "leaving one's guard down").

Of course, it isn't only corporate raiders who speak like Oakland Raiders. All of us do. I resolved to tackle this issue head-on after reading a quote from Deng Xiaoping, who said of one of the sparks leading to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square: "We need to tackle the corruption issue head-on."

I wondered how a reclusive Chinese Communist leader, even in translation, could sound like every American high school football coach. To make matters more confusing: Even as Chinese leaders co-opt the language of American sports for political purposes, American political leaders co-opt the language of Chinese leaders for sports purposes. So, within the family, former president George H.W. Bush refers to his most powerful tennis serve as "unleashing Chiang," a cryptic nod to former Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.

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