Opinion: just why are politicians so addicted to "level playing fields", "green jerseys" and "winning teams"?

"I believe that most political correspondents are frustrated sports writers at heart," journalist Carl Kinsella recently quipped on Twitter, adding for good measure "politicians themselves also LOVE a totally inapplicable sports metaphor." A glance at recent political events in Ireland would certainly seem to add credence to Kinsella's observation, with Leo Varadkar’s calls for a "level playing field" in Brexit negotiations and Mary Lou McDonald’s condemnation of forces that want to "keep Sinn Fein on the sidelines" being some of the more notable examples.

Indeed, sporting metaphors abound in political discourse to the extent that it might be worth asking just how "inapplicable" they are. Certain sports officials and fans are fond of insisting that sport and politics should not mix, an assertion that is credibly dismissed as facile by critics who argue that sport and politics are inherently linked. That argument is much-trodden ground as can be seen from such Brainstorm pieces as Laura Costelloe's article on French football and the country’s sociocultural divides, and Conor Murray’s examination of the potential impact of Brexit on border GAA. But what about the other side of the coin? If politics cannot be kept out of sport, can sport be kept out of politics?

From RTÉ Archives, Paschal Sheehy reports for RTÉ News on the funeral of Jack Lynch in Cork in 1999

The political career of Jack Lynch, captain of Cork’s football and hurling teams and twice Taoiseach, would seem to imply otherwise. Elsewhere, recent events, such as the 2017 election of former Balon d’Or winner George Weah to the presidency of Liberia and the ascent of former cricketer Imran Khan to the position of Prime Minister of Pakistan show that sport still wields considerable clout with electorates worldwide. How much clout remains debatable, and speculating on how the political careers of the likes of Lynch, Weah and Khan would have fared without their sporting fame is just that, speculation.

However, it is worthwhile to explore what it is about sport that makes it so attractive to politicians as a rhetorical tool. Many politicians seem determined to transform the political arena into the sports field. Their sports metaphors may seem inappropriate to some observers, but perhaps it is that very inappropriateness – the striking disparities between sport and politics – which fuels their desire to draw these parallels.

Election votes provide as clear and measurable a metric as goals or points

Media academic Dr Marcus Free argues that sport "exemplifies and symbolises the supposed performance-based meritocracy of capitalism." There is a sense in sport that the cream rises to the top, failures are duly and fairly punished and that sport will ultimately reveal, as Free puts it, "a truth about competitors in contests where no one can hide." Indeed, the most heated debates among sports media, administrators and fans tend to concern the issues which threaten to undermine this meritocracy, such as match-fixing and doping (both chemical and financial). Success in sport is therefore clear and (ideally) fair.

What constitutes success in politics is a good deal murkier. Election votes provide as clear and measurable a metric as goals or points, but politicians cannot justify themselves on election results alone when held accountable by the public. Rather than attempt to adequately articulate the intricacies of policies whose effects may be diffuse or long term, they resort to a discourse which implies a sense of immediate, measurable impact while also avoiding committing to detail about the nature of that impact Leo Varadkar’s recent assertion that the Irish public need to stick with a "winning team" with Brexit negotiations at "halftime" being a case in point.

Furthermore, such language disguises the structural inequalities of politics, such as which parties are more powerful or better resourced. It presents politicians’ successes as the result of a triumph in a meritocratic contest of equals. The language even occasionally helps to foster the sense that the politician or political party in question is somehow a valiant underdog succeeding against opaque but substantial odds.

Pull on the green jersey

The collapse of the Celtic Tiger accelerated the ascendency of the sports metaphor in Irish political discourse. Emphasis was placed on authenticity, efficiency and self-sacrifice after a perceived age of excess, complacency and corruption. Sports metaphors were – and continue to be – an ideal vehicle for such language, particularly in transforming unappealing policies into necessary sacrifices: "no pain, no gain." Attempts to justify post-Celtic Tiger austerity policies saw, according to Free, the nation discursively "reduced to a metaphorical body in need of retraining and toning by curbing excessive spending-as-consumption."

As I have previously discussed on Brainstorm, sport represents one of the last bastions of shared national experience, moments in which it feels as if an entire country has shared goals and desires. Thus, by urging us to "pull on the green jersey," politicians attempted to reframe their relationship with the public from adversarial, or – at very least – critical, to supportive. Citizens are covertly urged to be fans, or even cheerleaders. Criticising or opposing "green jersey" wearing politicians and their policies is implicitly framed as disloyal or counterproductive, as "not giving your all for the team."

Beyond the eye-rolling aroused by politicians’ claims that the election is "a marathon not a sprint" or that their party’s latest policy is a "game changer," there is a more significant and insidious impact of this persistent intermingling of sports and political discourse. US academic Daniel Vieth argues that thinking and talking of politics as a sport in which sides compete rather than cooperate contributes to political polarisation. "How many instances can one think of where one party didn’t want legislation to be passed purely because that would let the other side 'win’?"

Politicians reach for sporting metaphors to render their ideas and actions more tangible and comprehensible. But they also constrain its possibilities, rendering it a zero sum game in which there is a clear winner - and it is not the public.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ