Government’s Legitimate Role: A Football Analogy

Referee Jeff Triplette checks on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

By Stephen Hiltner

One seemingly bottomless source of national pessimism today is the notion that government can’t do anything right and that regulators are by nature the enemy of freedom and commerce. This pessimism, deeply rooted in the ideology that took hold in the 1980s, is a core impediment to action on climate change.

President Obama took a different view in his inauguration speech, saying we’ve learned from the nation’s history that “a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” Today’s Super Bowl will confirm this view, as players in a thriving NFL demonstrate that immersion in a closely regulated playfield environment is no impediment to high performance, spirit and invention.

Sports in general provides a fine analogy for what government’s role should ideally be. The athletes and their teams, motivated to beat the competition, bring to their game the same energy and creativity that entrepreneurs and businesses bring to the marketplace. But though the players and coaches may dispute a call now and then, they don’t make the mistake of perceiving regulation as the enemy. Rather, a good game requires clear rules and regulations that are fairly applied.

Boundaries in sports do not constrict action so much as channel it, challenging the players to refine their skills to make the most of the freedom and opportunities the game’s framework provides. Without a net and clear boundaries, tennis would never have produced the likes of a Federer or Djokovic. Similarly, manufacturers have responded to the combination of a competitive marketplace and rigorous government standards by greatly increasing the efficiency of appliances like refrigerators, while also lowering costs. Environmental regulations, then, are falsely maligned when in fact they can motivate manufacturers to dramatically improve their products and save consumers money.

There must be many football fans who believe that the nation’s economy would thrive if only government regulations were slashed, and yet the game itself is a celebration of rules and regulations. While underregulated financial institutions were precipitating a financial meltdown in the fall of 2007, football fans were scrutinizing instant replays for the slightest infraction.

This past fall, professional football provided a definitive demonstration of what happens when governance is given short shrift. When the NFL replaced its union referees with high school and college refs used to slower-paced play, their incompetence damaged the game. The NFL essentially replicated an experiment conducted by George W. Bush. By putting incompetent appointees in charge of FEMA, President Bush set the stage for the botched government response to the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers got it right when he said that top notch play and officiating are complementary, not antagonistic. A high standard of play on the field must be “complemented by an appropriate set of officials.”

Sports, too, clearly demonstrates the flaw in the assertion that regulations would better be determined by states rather than by the federal government. Imagine if teams in different states could make up their own rules and field dimensions. The result would be chaos, which is why industry so often lobbies for uniform standards at the federal level.

Ideologies that equate regulation with tyranny, common in political discourse, sound bizarre when applied to the realm of sports. You don’t hear athletes quoting Ayn Rand and calling for the elimination of referees and boundaries in the name of freedom. Nor is there any illusion that professional athletes will nobly police their own behavior. As football has increased in speed and complexity, the NFL has increased the number of referees from 3 to 7. Contrast this with calls by many politicians to get government out of the way of financial markets, even as the financial sector has exploded in size, complexity and speed.

But the importance of regulation and its consistent enforcement goes beyond insuring an exciting, fair, well-paced competition, whether in sports or the marketplace. Particularly in football, good regulation also protects players from mutual destruction. It is understood that each player is potentially a lethal weapon, capable of harming self and others.

In some ways, chronic traumatic encephalopathy–the longterm consequence of repeated concussion–is to football what climate change is to a fossil fuel-based economy. Both maladies are slow to manifest, eventually making normal life impossible. How does one save football, when the violence it is based on puts players’ brains at risk? And how to save our economy, when the fuels it is based on put the nation at ever-increasing risk of catastrophic changes in weather patterns? Here, again, the sports world has proven more mature and reality-based than the political realm. As scientific evidence of the long-term impact of concussions has accumulated, denial has given way to regulatory efforts to grapple with the problem.

As in the marketplace, the goal in football is not to rid the game of regulations, but to find the right balance. Too much regulation stifles creativity and slows the action. Too little breeds chaos and puts the players and the game itself at risk. When well-targeted regulations are consistently applied, governance disappears into the background and all attention can be focused on the game.

It is this aspect of the anti-government movement in our national political discourse that is most corrosive of the nation’s functioning and spirit. The constant questioning of government’s legitimate role in regulating society has the paradoxical effect of keeping government in the foreground, a bleeding sore that will not heal. We need to get past this constant berating of government, acknowledge its vital role, and work to refine its implementation so that it can hum along smoothly in the background.

Referees and regulators will never be loved. But there can be no doubt they are vital to the game. It’s time such an understanding spreads to our political discourse.

Stephen Hiltner is a writer, naturalist and musician based in Princeton, NJ. Trained in sciences at University of Michigan, he founded the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association ( in Durham, NC, and later spearheaded habitat restoration efforts in Princeton’s many nature preserves. He currently writes, lives and teaches nature appreciation and sustainable living through courses, interpretive walks, and his various blogs, which can be accessed via

9 Responses to Government’s Legitimate Role: A Football Analogy

  1. In a democracy, the government is we, the people. I have never understood why Ronald Reagan is venerated for saying, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That is as divisive and corrosive as it gets. I think it borders on treasonous. The statement’s effect, if not its entire purpose, is to undermine the legitimacy of democracy.

    This essay is right on. As long as the anti-democratic notion that the government is separate from the people, rather than its most legitimate political expression, then we are lost.

  2. Gingerbaker says:

    Why not take this essay one step further and ask why we even need to frame our energy future in terms of “the marketplace” at all?

    We don’t need the marketplace. We need to bypass it completely.

    We have thirty years of evidence which proves this. Trying to coax a fossil fuel-centric marketplace to embrace renewable energy has been a complete, abject, pie-in-the-face failure.

    Yet, you want to put the future of humanity – which has a mere 5 to 10 years to reduce CO2 emissions to zero in order to save itself (according to some climate scientists) right back square into the hands of “the marketplace” and hope that somehow, magically, things will be different this time around?

    No, let’s bypass the marketplace and go directly to a Federally-funded renewable energy national utility. Let’s spend the money we need to spend to replace all fossil fuels with large-scale solar and wind installations. And upgrade our grid, retrofit our homes, transportation fleets, and businesses with electric power.

    Let’s get it done before the small window of opportunity we have left to us to act has closed.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    Expecting independently wealthy private inventors to inhibit catastrophic climate change isn’t that far from expecting independently wealthy private policemen to respond to your 911 calls. If your idea of the most dependable, economically sustainable and practical urban law enforcement system is Batman out of a comic book, then I have a government-free and sensible solution to the catastrophic climate crisis for you:

    “Help Wanted: Inventorman! Must have own outrageously equipped Inventorcave. Butler, dynamic sidekick, Inventormobile a plus. Dada-dada dada-dada-dada-dada-dada-dada-dada-dada, Inventorman!”

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Well crafted, well administered laws, laws make a society work better.

    The more people we cram into a space unfortunately the more laws we need. If everybody had 5 acre blocks, then restrictions on home incinerators would be an aburdity. But in a modern city those same restrictions are essential.

    A good idea can still give bad legislation. Good legislation can be badly administered. We should never give up the fight to make government work better.

    However we do need government. “Without government Life would be nasty, short, and Brutish” to quote Hobbes.

  5. Brian R Smith says:

    Presidential leadership on regulation inspires change, saves game!

    “Strange as it may seem, high school football, college football, and even the Super Bowl might not exist today if President Theodore Roosevelt had not taken a hand in preserving the game. As originally played on college campuses, the game was extremely rough, including slugging, gang tackling and unsportsmanlike behavior. Quite a number of players died (18 in just the year 1905 alone, with 20 times fewer players than there are today).

    So in 1905, President Roosevelt summoned representatives of the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the universities who first played the game and who also set the rules of play) to the White House. In his best table-thumping style, Theodore Roosevelt convinced them that the rules needed to be changed to eliminate the foul play and brutality… As a result, the American Football Rules Committee was formed..”

    TR coined the term bully pulpit, referring to the White House. Obama, on the other hand, faced with climate action, seems to have a poor understanding of the power of table-thumping.

    Maybe Feb. 17 will help. I can’t be there but I hope it gets table-thumping loud instead of remaining respectfully, tactically subdued. I hope the organizers on the ground encourage 25,000+ people to sing or clap or beat cans together in unison for the President (and the media) to hear. Even if, like last time, he has conveniently escaped to Camp David for the weekend.

  6. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    …the notion that government can’t do anything right …. This pessimism, deeply rooted in the ideology that took hold in the 1980s…

    Ya got that half right anyway. I’m pretty pessimistic that Republican government can’t do anything right. But then, that’s not surprising when you hire horse show judges to run FEMA, neocon warmongers to run defense, and ice-cream-truck drivers to do nation building.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, then you are lost. There is not, never has been and can never be ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense of the term, in any capitalist economy. Power there resides with money, and, unless it is radically and justly redistributed, the real levers of power will always be manipulated by the owners of the great concentrations of wealth, and they are mostly people not noted for their fellow feeling and love of others.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Actually the Rightwing reaction set in from the 1970s, with the Chileans the first ‘beneficiaries’ of ‘Market Magic’, thanks to Pinochet and Milton Friedman’s ‘Chicago Boys’. It’s about when US median wages began stagnating and when CEOs started paying themselves increasingly staggering ‘salaries’ and ‘bonuses’. And when the very idea of social solidarity and collective care and concern was turned into anathema, and ‘the war of all against all’ became the chief feature of Western economies, ‘society’ having been terminated on Thatcher’s orders.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The football game in the excellent ‘Molly Maguires’ with Connery and Richard Harris is pretty brutal. No need for punch-ups though-the whole game was a massive sequence of assaults and battery.