July 28, 2004

Obama and the Sports Metaphor 

posted by Paul Smith @ 3:54 PM
It's irresistable to journalists, the framing of success in any field in terms of sports. It's obvious why this is the case; it's easy and it provides a common, understandable context especially when dealing with a subject or people that may not be that widely known.

By far the most common phrase used in the past two weeks to describe Barack Obama to the larger public is "rising star." Which can evoke "sports star," but just as easily "movie star," there's some neutrality there. But after last night's keynote success, the sports metaphor has taken over.

David Brooks, immediately following the speech on PBS, said it was like "watching Tiger Woods play for the first time." Today's Trib editorial, The Phenom ("phenom" rarely without modifiers like "tennis"), starts off with a baseball analogy, and they brand Obama the "can't-miss kid." Archpundit says "he hit it out of the ballpark."

I don't want to make too much of this: it was an exciting moment, and we want to convey that excitement and the relationship between expectations and performance under pressure which is such a core piece of major league sports. But it's just a wee bit depressing to hear this metaphor applied to a multiracial man, whom most would identify on first sight as black, who's just had a major achievement in a field which has chronically restricted access to and representation of people of color. As in, we can only make sense of this if we frame it in terms of a context where, fairly or unfairly, the general public have seen blacks as having the most success.

I want to be clear, I don't think any condescension was intended in any of these pieces, and clearly it's not anywhere close to racism. But perhaps because this is such a sensitive point, writers could go out of their way to avoid using the sports metaphor in this sort of case, even if they have or will use it with white politicians.

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