Everyone complains that sports are now merely a business, but the
reverse is equally true and somehow more unsettling: Business is
now merely a sport. Snap the suspenders of any CEO and a sports
metaphor will fall out.
Think baseball is all about the money? To Viacom president and
COO Mel Karmazin, who runs CBS, money is all about the baseball.
(Says Karmazin, of aging Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone: "The man has
not lost his fastball.")
Think basketball is little more than big business? To Philip
Hammarskjold, a managing director of the venture capital firm
Hellman & Friedman, big business is little more than basketball.
(He sees marketing and advertising firm Young & Rubicam as "a
slam dunk of an investment opportunity.")
Think the Olympics are overly commercialized? Paul Elliot, CEO of
Open Mind, makes commercialism overly Olympicized. (He says his
partnership with Smarthinking "raises the bar for the entire
textbook publishing industry.")
Why do corporate chiefs now speak like Kansas City Chiefs--even
when their corporation is based in Hong Kong? ("Ng
Cheung-shing," reports Asian Business of the CEO of Computer &
Technologies, "knows only too well that no matter how focused an
entrepreneur is, someone will keep moving the goalposts.")
Answer: Because many chief executives fancy themselves
athletes--only more gifted and more rigorously challenged. As a
magazine called Chief Executive boasts, "In the world of the
go-go funds...there are no mulligans for CEOs who miss their
It stands to reason that countless chief executives are
frustrated athletes: If you can't make the playoffs, make the
layoffs. But that doesn't go far enough. Rather, countless chief
executives have become indistinguishable from professional
athletes--with the phone-number salaries, the private-jet travel,
the win-at-all-costs competition. And, most astonishingly, the
Dozens of publications like Chief Executive do journalistic jock
sniffing, or its corporate equivalent. (Monogrammed boxer
snorting?) On television, cable network CNBC covers business in
almost exactly the way ESPN covers sports: with its
ever-vigilant ticker, its nightly wrap-up of the day's
highlights, its satellite interviews with the stars: Jack Welch!
Steve Jobs! Larry Ellison!
The phenomenon is most apparent in the language: Hand this off to
Henderson. Don't drop the ball. Pick it up and run with it. Get a
ballpark figure. Put our ducks in a row. (The last phrase is from
duckpin bowling, in which pin monkeys had to do just that.) Easy
decisions are gimmes, layups or slam dunks, while European
magnates speak in the soccerese of "own goals" (self-inflicted
damage) and getting "wrong-footed" (caught unprepared--or what the
American tycoon might call, with a nod to the sweet science,
"leaving one's guard down").
Of course, it isn't only corporate raiders who speak like Oakland
Raiders. All of us do. I resolved to tackle this issue head-on
after reading a quote from Deng Xiaoping, who said of one of the
sparks leading to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square: "We need
to tackle the corruption issue head-on."
I wondered how a reclusive Chinese Communist leader, even in
translation, could sound like every American high school football
coach. To make matters more confusing: Even as Chinese leaders
co-opt the language of American sports for political purposes,
American political leaders co-opt the language of Chinese leaders
for sports purposes. So, within the family, former president
George H.W. Bush refers to his most powerful tennis serve as
"unleashing Chiang," a cryptic nod to former Nationalist Chinese
leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Meanwhile, George Dubya Bush, late of the Texas Rangers, now
decries "pile-on politics," which has likewise been called
"smashmouth politics," "hardball politics" and just plain "dirty
pool." (As they say abroad of an unfair business or political
tactic: "It just isn't cricket.")
As sports have become the new American establishment, the old
American establishment--business tycoons and politicians--has
retreated further into sports. The two have effectively switched
spots. NBA players wear pin-striped suits to work, while business
executives wear sneakers. The phrase "blue chip" now almost
always refers to an athlete, not a stock, while a "level playing
field" is what's demanded by a pol or exec, not a coach or jock.
It's all very symmetrical, to say nothing of lucrative--whether
you're talking about executives, for whom money has become just
another way of keeping score, or athletes, for whom scoring has
become just another way of keeping money.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO