Sportspeak

LEONARD KOPPETT

February 28, 1992|By LEONARD KOPPETT

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA. — Palo Alto, California -- "Sportspeak'' is a word I used in a book some years ago to describe the process by which people apply metaphors and reasoning appropriate to spectator sports to the problems and practices of real life. It is a mindless transformation, and dangerous.

Life is not a game, in at least two fundamental respects, and to let one's thinking habits fall into game-relevant patterns when dealing with non-game realities is an invitation to serious trouble.

Games have an agreed-upon start and finish, with a totally defined final result (win, lose or tie), determined for all time at the conclusion of each game; all new games start 0-0. In life (business, personal relations, politics, health) nothing ever ends neatly with a score posted: There is always tomorrow, and nothing ever starts from 0-0; every day begins in circumstances the day before created.

The other big difference is that games have agreed-upon rules and that going outside them, while physically possible, simply destroys the game's meaning and effect. But life goes on under a constantly changing set of constraints that some accept, some don't, many dispute and all must confront without any guarantee of ''fairness.''

So to talk of ''winning and losing'' as distinct from (for instance) ''succeeding and failing'' helps pervert our ability to think straight and reach valid conclusions. A profitable business, a well performed piece of music, a graduation represent ''success,'' not ''victory,'' which implies defeating a specific foe in a contest only one can win. When a team wins a World Series, that's that. When a country wins a war, that's not that, but just the beginning of postwar complications inseparable from what happened during the war -- as we should know by now, in view of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and, as recently as last year, Iraq.

Mind pollution by sportspeak has been particularly damaging to our political life the last 25 years or so. Our commentators, analysts and professional campaign managers have treated elections as if they were horse races, focusing on predicting a winner and describing only the mechanics of the race while ignoring the substance of issues and looking only at their effect on the tactics of the race.

They have sold us the premise, inherently idiotic, that the purpose of an election campaign is ''to win.'' The true purpose of ''winning'' any office is acquiring the right to exercise its powers in the subsequent term. What really counts is what the winner will do with that power, to what ends, for whose benefit, by what methods. That's what affects all our lives, individually and collectively: what winners do once in office. How they got there matters little once we face the consequences of their post-race actions.

And here we have a third fundamental difference between games and life. The outcome of a horse race means nothing to those who choose not to care. But even those who choose not to care about an election are all stuck with its consequences, whether they like it or not.

tTC That's why it's so disturbing to see the sportspeak germ spread from (and by) journalists to the voters themselves. In the intensively covered New Hampshire primary, many of the ordinary people interviewed mentioned the ''electability'' of a candidate as a factor in deciding how to vote. What does ''electability'' mean, and why should any voter give it weight in making a choice? When I vote, am I trying to ''pick a winner'' or to register a preference for someone who will do what I think needs to be done?

The professional managers and the high-visibility commentators are, in fact, trying to name a winner before the finish line is reached, as in a horse race. They bet their reputations and future money-making potential on being perceived as able to guess right. Journalists who do this may be betraying their obligation to inform the public'' by joining the spin doctors' game, but at least they are making sense in terms of their own selfish goals.

But if the ordinary voter joins this game, what has happened to our revered democratic process? Even a sports fan knows the difference between placing a bet and ''rooting for'' the one you like. The whole rationale for having an election is to determine, by head count, what the majority wants. If a large part of the majority is simply trying to guess what the rest of the majority will choose, what can the outcome tell us? If I fail to vote for the one I agree with because the electability predictors have labeled him a ''loser,'' what have I gained in my own interest? The warm glow of ego satisfaction that I guessed right? What ''bet'' do I cash if four years of harmful policies follow?

In the sports world, we call this ''betting against yourself.'' But in sports it doesn't matter: Our interest is voluntary. In exercising the franchise -- our special glory, which the world envies and about which we boast -- we can't escape the consequences even if we try.

As the primaries proceed, we will hear, read and see more and more about the horse race to nomination. If the voters out there are really weighing ''electability'' instead of preference, the days of the Republic may be numbered.

Leonard Koppett is editor emeritus of the Peninsula Times Tribune.

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