Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Barracuda: Sarah Palin, Basketball Star

Sarah Palin is back in the news with the release of her new book, Going Rogue. Here is a post from the Sports Academic archives, originally published Sep. 9, 2008:

(Daily News via

Most bios of new VP candidate Sarah Palin include (and often begin with) the fact that she was once a basketball player and led her team to a state championship, earning the nickname Barracuda along the way. If her basketball experience is regularly brought up, it is because Palin and other Republicans (who played the song "Barracuda" by the group Heart at their convention) want it brought up. The following is from the Business Week election blog:

"Basketball was a major influence in her life, to tell by comments she’s made to reporters. 'I know this sounds hokey,' she told the Anchorage paper, 'but basketball was a life-changing experience for me,' and it taught her 'about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork, and then success.' Voters just might get to hear about it again now; reported the newspaper in 2006: 'Palin has been telling interviewers about the 1982 state tournament at West High…for at least a decade, including the self-effacing line about its being hokey.'"

Nero certainly knew the political clout the title of champion could convey, so he bribed his way to a victory in the Olympic chariot race in AD 67. And Napoleon tried to prove his legitimacy by hunting in the manner of the old monarchs on more than one occasion (apparently he was terrible at it). Today sports have an even more powerful hold on the public imagination.

Because of the strong sports culture in America, the fact that Palin was a state champion will lead many to forgive a multitude of shortcomings. Who needs other credentials when "State Champ" is on the resume? Americans assume that those who are successful in sports can transpose that success into any other field, the examples of Pete Rose, Marion Jones, etc. notwithstanding. Unfortunately (and with due respect to Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, and Steve Largent) as Murray Sperber notes in his book Beer and Circus, in the current era of specialization, such successful transitions are becoming more and more rare.

Beyond that, goal setting, teamwork and success may be easy to track in sports, but the world of politics is far more ambiguous and requires the ability to handle some gray. Dealing with Iran, Russia, or Venezuela will not be as clear cut as the pick and roll, and economic reform will demand more nuanced, analytical thinking than anything sports can teach. Being too goal driven may also lead politicians to surreptitiously fire anyone who impedes their agenda (e.g. police chiefs, state public safety commissioners, or federal prosecutors), thereby subverting the democratic process.

Sports metaphors are easy to understand and, by their very nature, populist. And we will certainly hear a lot of them before the end of this election season (from both Palin and Obama). But I can think of more athletes I would not want to see in office (President Bryant? Senator Rodman? Congressman Rocker? Governor Barkley?) than those I would.

The moral of the story: Beware of politicians who vaunt success on the court over political acumen.


marc said...

Phelps for President! (google it). Sure he's not old enough, but nothing says American Pres. like breakin' the rules.

Corry Cropper said...

How about Lance Armstrong for a cabinet post? He's apparently returning to cycling, but maybe McCain can convince him to work as the new drug czar in his administration.

Corry Cropper said...

Plus, Armstrong is actually old enough!

Let's see, Nixon bowled, Obama plays hoops, W. bikes, jogs, and clears brush, Ford played football, and Clinton chased greased pigs (If memory serves). Any other athletic presidents I'm missing?

Robert J. Hudson said...

Why not "Landis for Pres"???

His Amish background and links to the land might appeal to Palin's "Real America".

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