Mark Shields: Who has a ‘glass jaw’?

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Immediately after the combative Houston, Texas, Republican debate, Donald Trump, the clear front-runner for the 2016 GOP nomination, sought to dismiss Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s fiery attacks on Trump’s business ethics.

Rubio accused the real estate billionaire of hypocrisy on immigration in his own hiring and production practices.

Trump’s rebuttal in a post-debate interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo: “One thing I learned from sports — I was actually a very good athlete — when you’re a choker, you’re always a choker.”

For those citizens and observers not lucky enough to have been brought up with the slang of American sports, to “choke,” in baseball jargon, is to fail, because of nervousness or fear, in a high-pressure situation. Trump was alluding to an earlier debate in New Hampshire when Rubio, obviously unnerved by the relentless taunting of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, lost his poise and kept repeating the same robotic answer.

This exchange reminded me how difficult it must be for even the best-informed non-sports-fans to understand our politics when so much is explained in sports metaphors. For example, one question at least a few Republicans nervous about their party’s November prospects are asking is: “Do you think Donald Trump has a glass jaw?”

Unless you watch boxing, you probably would not have known that a “glass jaw” refers to a fighter who cannot “take a punch,” that is, withstand blows from an opponent. By extension, this describes a politician who is vulnerable to, and buckles under, sustained criticism and confrontation. The competitor who cannot take a punch can often find himself “on the ropes” (where a boxer stunned and hurt by blows can be close to defenseless) and forced to “throw in the towel” — to admit defeat and give up. A serious person who deserves our attention is a “heavyweight,” while a ” lightweight” is a frivolous individual whose opinions can be safely ignored.

But it’s more than boxing. We who report on politics are frankly addicted to sports metaphors of all kinds. From baseball, we borrow the “curveball,” which is an unexpected development or question, while a too-easy question for a candidate is rightly criticized as a “softball,” which is bigger and much easier to hit than a baseball. To support or argue on behalf of a candidate is to “go to bat for.” To take another’s place or serve as substitute for is to “pinch hit,” and to risk all by making the no-holds effort is, as Trump dared Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Houston, to “swing for the fences.”

Political commentators are in the second-guessing business. With the advantage of hindsight, we regularly examine what campaigns and candidates have failed to do: a practice, because football games are most played on Saturdays or Sundays, called being a “Monday-morning quarterback.” The badly trailing candidate who resorts to a desperation strategy is launching a “Hail Mary pass,” which is a low percentage football play that depends upon considerable luck.

Let’s confess: Political reporters are, at heart, unfulfilled sportswriters who expropriate the language of locker rooms and press boxes and cannot stop speaking in jock talk.

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