Learning About Politics Through Sports

Any politician worth his or her salt can whip up a sports metaphor for a stump speech.

What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports by former Virginia Gov. and Sen. George Allen goes more than a few steps further.

The new book breaks down the qualities inherent in great athletes and coaches and tells why they’re able to succeed in the toughest of circumstances.

Then the book shows how those same qualities can help win political battles and create legislators that the public can trust.

Allen, a former college athlete and son of a Hall of Fame coaching legend, clearly understands the games people play. He starts each chapter with a memorable sports anecdote—some tied to his own illustrious family, others stripped from the highlight reels.

The book begins with one of the most glaring examples of government interference—the so-called “Nixon’s Play” that cost the Washington Redskins dearly back in 1971. It’s a stark reminder of people butting their noses in areas where they don’t belong.

“Washington,” he writes, “is full of armchair quarterbacks who often get things wrong.”

The sports world has often led the way in our culture, outpacing politicians in matters like racial progress.

Blacks ascended to the upper echelon of the sports realm long before Sen. Barack Obama became our first black President.

One reason why is simple—“get the job done and everyone respects you,” he writes. “No one cares whether you’re black, brown or white … that’s the essence of a merit-based system. And that’s the American way, at least as the world of sports sees it.”

Sports honor natural athletes, those born with physical advantages that give them a leg up over the competition. The six-foot-ten power forward will always have an edge over his shorter peers on the court. It’s like someone born into a wealthy family—he or she begins life with an economic cushion others may not have.

But there’s always the case of the athlete who excels due to an unflagging work ethic, and the same is true of our capitalistic system, Allen writes.

Education remains society’s great equalizer, with the best jobs going to those who are the most prepared. Sports keep statistics to measure athletic prowess and advancement while schools use grades to make sure essential bookmarks are met.

In sports, wishful thinking can prove disastrous. Consider the historic case of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner playing the field in the ninth inning of a pivotal game in the 1986 World Series. The manager should have removed him for a defensively superior player. Instead, he let emotions cloud his judgment.

Baseball fans know what happened next—a simple grounder skipped between Buckner’s legs—but Allen notes politicians often let similarly misguided thinking cloud their actions.

“Many Washington policymakers today govern with an overly sentimental view of how the real world works,” he writes. “They imagine that our adversaries want peace very bit as much as we do.”

Too many legislators today work from a punt-first mindset, a move that a good football coach sees as an admission of offensive failure. That can be disastrous from a political perspective, especially given the country’s exploding debt, job losses and other modern problems.

“Washington policy makers have been punting on energy for decades,” he writes.

The government needs to address issues like the deficit now, not tomorrow, and a good place to start is by giving the President the power of the line-item veto and passing a balanced budget amendment, says Allen.

And rather than propose energy legislation that transfers American wealth abroad, legislators should focus on measures like energy conservation, leveraging clean coal and letting states tap energy resources off their coasts.

The best defense is a good offense, as any sports fan knows.

Allen uses the example of the Minnesota Twins, who won the World Series in 1987 and in 1991 by winning every home game as a way to trumpet states rights.

Politicians “look for centralized, nationally imposed prescriptions for local concerns,” he writes, adding that as Virginia governor he used state laws to his competitive advantage to draw jobs back home.

Allen recalls the legendary football rivalry between the Army and Navy to remind readers of the way national politics should play out.

Yes, the tactics can be merciless, and the competition as fierce as anyone can imagine. But at the end of the day we’re all on the same team, all rooting for the country’s success over both its adversaries and internal woes.

Locker room divisions can bring a sports team to its knees, and the same can be true for the country at large.

What Washington Can Learn From The World of Sports fuses Allen’s twin passions for sports and politics in a way few other books can match.