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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
28 Nov 2015
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Confessions of a Serial Sexist


This political campaign has been filled with charges — and denials — of male sexism. In Michigan last month, at the Chrysler stamping plant in Sterling Heights, Democratic candidate Barack Obama evaded a shouted question from television reporter Peggy Agar of Detroit' s WXYZ, "What are you going to do to help American auto workers?" with a smile and this line, "Hold on one second, sweetie."

After Obama's words led to an overheated flap lasting several hours on the blogosphere — none of it, let it be noted, encouraged or aided by Peggy Agar — the Illinois senator called her and left on her voicemail a polite apology for this "bad habit of mine."

This was not, I am confident most would agree, an act of sexism. But after a brief period of introspection following the serious and semi-serious charges of male sexism leveled most often at the cable news male talking heads in 2008, I have concluded that along with a majority of my male colleagues who cover politics, I am guilty of sexist language that, while not intended to do so, does often exclude women journalists from male discussions.

Scratch a male political reporter, and you'll more often than not find a frustrated sports writer. Men talk about sports the way women talk about family, feelings and children. But we men do not leave the language of sports in our bull sessions. No, we use sports-page shorthand to write about presidential politics.

Take baseball. Many male reporters are incapable of describing a political event without the wholesale expropriation of baseball language. If a political tactic or performance is shabby or undeserving of any respect, it's often called "bush league." This has nothing to do with the first family of George W. or his dad. It's a disparaging reference to the rural, backwoods towns where minor league baseball was played.

A too-easy question asked of a candidate in a TV interview or a debate is dismissed as a "softball," which is bigger, softer and easier to hit than the harder, smaller baseball.

An unexpected question that surprises a candidate is called a "curveball."

In baseball, the center of action is between the pitcher and the batter at home plate, while the outfield is a considerable distance away, somewhat remote. So when the Obama campaign surprised everybody by announcing it was hiring Clinton's fired campaign manager Patty Solis Doyle to be the chief of staff for Obama's not-yet-selected vice-presidential running-mate, the Clinton people saw it understandably as a snub of Sen. Clinton and a move that came right "out of left field."

When a candidate fails to perform at a crucial moment because of fear or nervousness, male journalists report that he "choked," which is baseball language for the hitter who fails to hit when the game is on the line. When the candidate fails to break the ice with an important constituency or group, it is written that he "didn't get to first base" — which the baseball runner must first reach before he has a chance to score. This phrase can refer to the initial approach in any relationship, including romantic.

Of course, we men do not limit ourselves to baseball expressions. A desperation ploy on the part of a losing candidate is described as "a Hail Mary pass," which has nothing to do with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, but is the football term for long-shot forward pass that needs intercession to succeed.

Because most football games are played on weekends, the analyst who second-guesses strategy or decisions is derided as a "Monday morning quarterback."

We men are frankly sexist and exclusive with our over-reliance on sports jargon and metaphors — forcing our sisters on the press bus to master our private verbal handshakes. But we often can be "hot dogs," too, who are defined as self-promoting show-offs.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




2 Comments | Post Comment
Mr. Shields; If you have ever gotten to first base with a girl you realize they are different. They are in fact, more human. If we are living in a world of sports metaphores it is also the world of the past. By this I mean that the world no longer depends upon strength, skill, strategy, and team work. Computers make each of us as powerful and as relevant as the next person. There is no need for heroes, but for people who can show up and get the job done. I worked Iron for thirty years, and we had a few fine sister Ironworkers; but to be honest, they would usually do what a man could do while the men did jobs they could not do. I met one young woman whose body was wrecked by weakness and shivers from molybdenum poisoning from welding fumes. Welding saved my back and destroyed he body. The danger is the same for women or men, but a job that requires a man with a sixteen inch collar and a size three hat is going to be done by the boys while the girls hold the roll. And nothing is going to change that. There will always be some cave man with a club to hammer it into place while there will always be a woman telling him where to put it. We can see from the last election that women are as cursed by ambition as men, and just as prone to running off at the mouth with international threats. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that on a small world, all we do gets back to us. And if that means thermo nuclear weapons, then we can all suffer, and all die. We should recognize that from the standpoint of affirmative action there have only been one group of winners, and it has been white females. Are they oppressed, and underpaid? Well, yes; but not so bad as in the third world where the desire to keep their children fed makes absolute slaves of the women while men desert them wholesale. It is children that drive down the price of women's wages. It is women in the work force that drive down the price of men's wages. In my father's generation it was rare for a woman to work out of the home, and now, no home can survive without the wages of women. So where is the benefit across the board? You see; I understand that women are equal and as deserving of creative outlet as men. I understand that that the computer has made women the virtual equal of men. I understand that the concerns of women are human concerns, and valid. But I think jobs paying half as much being done by twice the people while the kids sit home raised by video games and the internet -is really some kind of retrograde progress. Now; with two daughters and a wife, you might say I live in a matriarchy. I sit home worn out and retired while my wife carries the mail. Her organizational skills far surpass my own, and she would have my vote for president any day. But to put reality in some perspective, I teach my daughters that all men are Aholes, myself included, with some of the chunks wore off. It is to help them understand that youth, beauty and testosterone drive this world, and that the difference between the sexes is one which they will always have to negotiate if they do not expect to be used, dismissed, and driven over.
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jun 28, 2008 5:36 AM
Well, Mark, I guess we all need a little trivia break now and then. Just the same, one of the legitimate criticisms so called conservatives have of us liberal types is our tendency to get hung up on words. ...........................................................................................................................................................................................................
I do think, for the sake of basic educational principles, that a grown man like our president who graduated from Yale ought at least to pronounce the word "nuclear" correctly. Even if he didn't really qualify to get in he should at least have enough gratitude and respect to represent the institution properly after he skated out of there. ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................
Why should anybody with a life need to waste time finding fault with the language used to get across a point, sports-shorthand, gender-influenced or not, if it doesn't model bad pronunciation or grammar for our kids, it is not intended to harm the innocent, it does deliver a coherent message, and the point is well-taken?
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Sat Jun 28, 2008 9:51 AM
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