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Why politicians feel the need to like sports

One of the great clichés of any political race are sports metaphors – all of them tired or uninspired. Such-and-such candidate “hit a home run” or “scored a touchdown” with their latest speech, or “dropped the ball” with a new policy, or what have you. This tendency to relate sports and politics has been around for hundreds of years – there is a famous political cartoon depicting Abraham Lincoln and his competitors in a baseball game – but what’s become more relevant and important in recent years is the relation between sports and politicians. Politicians have begun to use sports to curry votes or to hone their image as a candidate. Simply put, every politician, seemingly, has to (or at least has to pretend) like sports.

Mitt Romney has started using a sports metaphor in his stump speech, criticizing Barack Obama for going “0 for 23 million” in job creation –Obama has since responded with a long, drawn out football analogy in his own speech. Paul Ryan, Romney’s Vice Presidential candidate, claimed that he was once an avid marathon runner, his best time being a “Two [hours] fifty [minutes] something”. Further research shows that his best time was actually over four hours.

Obama has gone on ESPN every year of his current presidency to pick his NCAA basketball bracket and promised on the eve of his 2008  election that he would try using his presidential powers to change college football’s championship system. Hillary Clinton has credited organized sports with helping her become the Secretary of State. Jean Charest, while campaigning in Quebec City, warned voters that a Parti Québécois  win would jeopardize the chances of an NHL team relocating to Quebec City, reminding voters of his commitment to bring a team to the capital. Stephen Harper frequently shows up at NHL games. The list goes on and on – and these examples are just from the last few years. But why? Why do politicians find it so important to show their voters that they like sports?

It comes down to sports’ ubiquitous nature, and the male consciousness. Sports have become part of the fabric of life throughout the world, especially in Canada and America. In elections, questions like “which candidate you would rather have a beer with?” and the candidate’s knowledge of sports determine their likability. If “everyone” likes sports, and the candidate likes sports, then they have common ground, and the candidate is seen as more down to earth.

Many candidates’ attempts at showing their love of sports are hilariously transparent. John Kerry, while on the campaign trail in 2004, called Lambeau Field (perhaps the most storied stadium in football) “Lambert Field” and made reference to the Ohio State Buckeyes while visiting their rival school, the University of Michigan. His competitor, George W. Bush, then attacked these mistakes, trying to show that Kerry was separated from the voting base. Kerry’s blunders are just one example of such mistakes by politicians. In the effort to be more similar to the voting base, though, politicians will continue to make these blunders – sports have become the easiest way for politicians to connect to the ‘common’ person.

Another way that male politicians often use sports is to exude an image of rugged “manliness” and leadership – qualities that are supposedly inherent in sports. Take, for instance, Paul Ryan’s questionable marathon time. Why lie about it? A better time presents Paul Ryan, candidate, as vital, fit and strong –  a man to lead the country.

Ditto for Obama’s frequent pick-up basketball games –  is it any coincidence that they are widely publicized? Considering that in 2008 Obama was running against John McCain, a 72-year- old man, it is not surprising that Obama’s campaign subtly highlighted his fitness and athleticism. Sports, in this way, have been co-opted to make a candidate more masculine.  Someone who loves sports and frequently plays them seems more relatable as well as having an edge of masculinity. (Unfortunately it seems that sports will be linked to masculinity ad infinitum, no matter the advances of women’s sports). For politicians, this makes them appear to be better leaders.

In the end, this use of sports as a marketing tool for politicians cheapens both sports and politics. Liking sports shouldn’t be a prerequisite for being a successful politician – good policy should. And sports shouldn’t be a cheap way to project oneself as a good leader or as non-elitist: most feigned efforts end up reflecting badly on the candidate. But the pursuit of ‘personality’ and common ground – no matter how artificial– with the voter base means that this co-opting of sports will continue.