On Sports Clichés as Political Metaphors

Kathy Kemper has a piece up at HuffPost about the upcoming presidential election. She argues that the slow recovery of the US economy under the Obama administration is cause to not re-elect him for a second term. At the heart of her argument is an analogy to competitive sports coaches. Kemper’s piece is an excellent example of why analogy often makes for bad argument.

Let me explain…

Bad Coaches

Kemper’s argument boils down to an analogy about how to handle the coaches of underperforming sports teams. When a coach takes over a weak team, they are granted some leeway regarding the team’s early performances. At first, it is understandable if the team struggles to win. They are having to adjust to a new coaching style, and they weren’t all that good to begin with.

However, after a couple of seasons, results are expected to turn around. The team is expected to get better and win more games. If this doesn’t happen, the failures of the previous coach can no longer be blamed for sluggish performances under the current coach.

The parallels to the Obama administration should be apparent. Obama inherited ‘the Great Recession’. However, after nearly four years in office, as Kemper points out, “the U.S. economy is still weak[,] GDP [has] only just recovered to its pre-recession peak, and unemployment is still over 8 percent.”

The Obama administration typically points out that comparing pre-recession levels with current levels (while not accounting for the recession) is a bit unfair. Kemper, however, is suggesting that we should no longer be judging the Obama administration with recession-era leeway. That weak team that President Obama inherited is no longer around. The current US economy is Obama’s alone.

As Kemper puts it: “at some point, the buck has to stop at a coach’s door. She has to own her team’s problems and take responsibility for performance. That’s what leadership is. And if she can’t deliver, fire her!”

Bad Metaphors

The thing about metaphors as commentary is that they are well suited for reinterpretation. Kemper’s sports analogy is a prime example. Let’s concede that the team is not performing well under coach Obama. Yes, the horrible results early on were the making of the previous coach. But those failures are gone. Our team’s winning percentage is still not fantastic. The team is not producing championship caliber performances.

So, should we replace the coach? Well, if we fire coach Obama, what are our alternative options? When we look at the other available coaches, we find a bunch of no-names with no experience and a guy who’s approach to the game mirrors that of the coach who got us into this mess in the first place.

If we are left to choose between the current coach (whose style is slowly improving results) and the alternative coach (whose style previously produced the worst results in decades), any fan would agree that we stick with the current coach. As a former coach who inherited a weak team, would Kemper rehire the failed coach who preceded her?

This is where Kemper’s metaphor seems to fall apart. As much as it makes sense to no longer allow the Obama administration to use ‘the Great Recession’ as an excuse, that doesn’t default Romney into a viable candidate. If Romney’s formula is a proven losing formula, why hire him as coach?

Even at its most cynical level, Obama is the better option.


One comment

  1. JusticeGeorge · September 19, 2012

    First off, your inclusion of Cthulu is fantastic.

    Secondly, I very much appreciate your criticism of bad metaphors, especially in this context. I think these analogies often understate the importance of the issues at hand and contribute to the radical polarization of our two party system. I think they understate that America is not just a team and that the President is not just a coach. The American government is obviously much more complex than any individual sports team and the role of the president much different from the role of a coach. Metaphors like these work to confine understanding within the realm of the metaphor itself. While a mindful person can realize that a metaphor breaks down when put under the pressure of analysis, I think many may only see in terms of the metaphor.

    The election of arguably the most powerful person in the world shouldn’t be reduced to a sports metaphor. This stuff is important, and educating people about the issues surrounding the situation are likewise important.

    I also agree with your analysis of Obama. While I intend to support Romney if he is elected because of his office (He does seem to represent a formula that has been tried and hasn’t worked), I think Obama is doing about as good a job as he can and am pulling for him in the coming election.

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