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Commentary: When Politicians Use Football Analogies To Make Their Point

Jan 2, 2019
Originally published on January 2, 2019 6:06 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Sports metaphors have a way of working themselves into casual conversation. But interestingly, conversations about the war against ISIS are no exception. President Trump's declaration that ISIS had been defeated and that he'll withdraw U.S. troops from Syria led to serious debate. Some of his critics have started using football metaphors. Here's commentator Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Last week on CBS's "Face The Nation," Democratic Senator Chris Coons spoke in opposition to the presidential decision to withdraw troops from Syria, saying, we're so close...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

CHRIS COONS: We shouldn't fumble the ball on the five-yard line.

PESCA: Then this week on CNN, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham grabbed the analogy and ran with it - backwards by about five yards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: They're inside the 10-yard line in defeating ISIS, but we're not there yet.

PESCA: So close, but not as close. Then there was an NBC News story which quoted an unnamed U.S. Special Forces commander saying, we're on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We're that close to total victory to wiping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria.

Those words were said nine months ago at the time Rex Tillerson was still the secretary of state and H.R. McMaster was national security adviser. So you could interpret U.S. success as tantalizingly close but actually moving backwards bit by bit, or you could just conclude that it's less likely that victory is in sight than the analogy is inapt. Analogies work by taking an abstract or even unknowable concept - in this case, the war against an amorphous enemy - and putting it in terms that an audience can understand.

Most Americans could not tell you the results of the Abu Komal offensive, or the command and control structure of ISIS or even if ISIS is Sunni or Shia. But they know when a football team has the ball on the two or five or 10-yard line, they should score a touchdown. Actually, based on statistics from over 30,000 scenarios, the sports analytics firm numberFire determined that the odds of throwing for a touchdown from the 10-yard line are 19 percent and from the five are 31 percent, a running touchdown from the five happens less often than 20 percent of the time, but push it out to Lindsey Graham's 10-yard line, and you get a rushing touchdown 8 percent of the time.

So even these imagined yard lines, selected to convey the relative ease of the mission, indicate the opposite. And what would a field goal against ISIS be worth? Furthermore, what's a turnover? That ISIS defeats the U.S. military? And is the U.S. ahead in this game? If so wouldn't withdrawing, which is to say, running out the clock and ending the game, be the best strategy? I don't think the senators and military men who purvey these analogies would argue that. They'd likely say comparisons to yard lines aren't meant to be precise, but evocative. The only problem is they evoke not just a proximity to the goal, literally, but they imply a clock and a rules-based structure that the situation doesn't warrant.

There is one notable thing about these analogies. They're all football. If you remember five years ago, then-President Obama referred dismissively to the Jihadi groups which had inherited al-Qaida's mantle by saying, quote, "the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant." I don't know if it's deliberate or unconscious, but talk of goal lines and fumbles, as opposed to an NBA hall of famer, makes clear the current situation in Syria is a whole other ball game.

KING: Commentator Mike Pesca hosts the Slate podcast "The Gist," and he wrote "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.