One of the reasons that I love politics is that it is really just a sporting event for people with bad knees and big bellies. The use of sports metaphors in politics is so pervasive that a while back, a political linguist named Nguyen Thi Thu Hang analyzed and categorized political headlines by which sports were mentioned.
He found that debates were most often framed in boxing terms; (lots of punches thrown, but no knock outs). Baseball (He needs a home run) Basketball (this should be a slam-dunk) and Football (that was a real fumble at the goal line) were all prevalent. But it was track (race to the finish line) and horse-racing (neck and neck, front runner) that were the most common sport/politics headlines.
Back in the 1980’s professor Robert Keidell used sports to categorize organizations and organizational structure. He argued that traditional manufacturing organizations are like football teams with hierarchical control and everyone doing a small part in serve to the larger team. He said sales organizations were like baseball teams where the individual success of one team member is only loosely connected to other team members. Advertising agencies, which rely on creativity and improvisation, are like basketball or soccer teams.
Interestingly, legislatures are a hybrid of all three. Clearly, there is a strict hierarchy with the speaker or president dominating or directing actions. However, they are also like baseball teams where individuals can often find success independent of the organization if they get bills passed for their districts. When there is conflict, however, there is a need for the creativity and improvisation of the basketball court to figure out how to make all the pieces work together.
So why are the sports metaphors important now?
One of my favorite little known facts about Speaker Craig Coughlin is his hobby. He is a play-by-play announcer for Woodbridge High School sports. He calls basketball and football games and occasionally other sports. This hobby tells us a lot amount about the speaker.
First, he is good at shifting the focus away from himself and towards others. This is an amazing contrast with the previous speaker Vincent Prieto, who did everything possible to bring attention to himself. That is perhaps not surprising given the legend is that Prieto was apparently once a competitive body builder. Speaker Coughlin is clearly comfortable watching the game while still being a part of it.
Second, it tells us he has the capacity to put things in context and to see the big picture. A good sports announcer not only tells you what is happening now but also how now relates to last time. Coughlin seems to remember that New Jersey residents repeatedly say that want less taxes NOT necessarily more services.
Third, most of the time (at least on the local level) the announcer is a “homer” they are clearly fans of the home team and want it to succeed. If you want to place a bet (a legal one that is) on which way he will fall, my bet is on what Woodbridge and Central Jersey wants. My guess is that is structural reform and not new permanent spending.
Over the last several months, we have heard a fairly constant drum beat about how the quarterback Murphy and point guard Sweeney are “pummeling” each other up as they “pitch” legislators and constituents on budget priorities. It has been a fascinating game to watch.
But it is no longer the 2nd inning or even the 6th, it is getting close to buzzer time and Speaker Coughlin has a chance to make the right calls and help put the budget to bed. He has the skills and has the voice. He just needs to use it and the fans and players just need to listen.
Matt Hale is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University.