Ambitious politicians are gearing up for the midterm elections, spending tens of millions of dollars in consultant fees. However, in many ways, all they really have to do is switch on their TV sets on Sunday (or, at most, buy the NFL ticket). This is because football provides valuable lessons for the conduct of political campaigning:
Follow Lombardi's Dictum
Vince Lombardi was a genius of a coach and it is no coincidence that the Super Bowl trophy is named after him. Among his many aphorisms, the one justifiably quoted more often is that "Winning isn't everything. It is the only thing." Lombardi is correct and politicians better take heed. When running their campaigns, they have to remain single-mindedly focused on one, and only one objective: winning the race. It is from such an approach that strategy and tactics should ensue. Lose sight of winning, even momentarily, and you will probably end up being defeated.
Pre-Season Counts For Nothing
It is often the case that during preseason, fans and teams confuse grabbing attention and dominating the back pages of newspapers with winning. The arrival of electric players often causes a fan frenzy and front offices have to be restrained from pre-ordering their Super Bowl rings. But we do know better: nothing counts until the season begins and even then it is a long, uphill road before the confetti can come down. Politicians better be instructed in this brutal reality. Before the primaries begin and the actual elections fought, very little counts. Case in point: in the Summer before his Presidential bid began, Barack Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls by as many as 20 percentage points. We all know how that ended.
Concentrate on All Fronts
Successful football teams almost always distinguish themselves (or at the very least field capable units) on offense, defense and special teams. Politicians better pay attention. They face opponents so they better have the right people to go on attack mode and also defend them from the inevitable negative ads; but they also need to have their special team in place for the more nuanced but potentially decisive and election-deciding actions.
Think Before You Act
This sounds commonsensical but how many politicians have burned their careers because they acted without any plan and without a proper assessment of ramifications? On this, football is simply a great teacher. Think of all the hours spent in studying film or at grueling practices; and think of the huddle as the example par excellance of deliberating before acting (even no huddle offenses require months upon months of practicing).
No One Is Bigger Than the Organization
Politicians are often self-centered and sometimes arrogant individuals. On occasion. they are larger than life whose claims to historical significance are actually deserved. But all would be well-instructed by following the careers of the larger than life, greatest of all time football players. We celebrate their virtues, discuss their deeds, cherish their memories and even excuse their foibles. But no one, not a Vince Lombardi, not a Joe Montana, not a Tom Brady is bigger than their teams and what these teams represents. After all, players of phenomenal ability come and go but teams are far more durable; and crucially, no player will ever be greater than the game. Politicians need to thus keep in mind that they are not bigger than their political parties; in all likelihood, the parties will survive their departure; and no politician can ever be bigger or more important than a country and its people.
Some of the Greatest Victories Are Defeats
Politicians should aim to win but there is no shame in losing; and sometimes, big losses presage even bigger victories. In the last two times that the NY Giants won the Super Bowl, they had posted respectively tantalizingly close defeats to the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers during the regular season. In both cases, it became clear that the Giants had nothing to fear and victory was in their grasp; Also, the last time that the Green Bay Packers hoisted the Lombardi trophy they had barely lost with their back up QB Matt Flynn against Tom Brady and his gang at Gillette stadium. This loss in effect signaled their SB run. Similarly, politicians can lose an election but create the necessary groundwork for a subsequently successful run (think Ronald Reagan) or even create conditions for the rise of their ideological movements (think Barry Goldwater).
So, there you have it: Football does impart crucial lessons for political campaigning. It implores politicians to stay focused on winning, advises them to discount all pre-election noise, pay attention to all parts of their organization and always think before they act. It further teaches them humility and even consoles them in the case of defeat.
Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.
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