Changing the game for good

The Monitor's language columnist looks at a term that almost everyone wants to pin on Sarah Palin.

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It would be a stretch to say that there's one thing that both delighted conservatives and horrified liberals agree on with respect to Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president. But one phrase does keep popping up across the political spectrum: "game changer."

It's appeared in reference to the Alaska governor in publications from the Weekly Standard to National Journal to the Huffington Post. Even The Age of Melbourne, Australia, taking the long view, has chimed in. Sen. John McCain's decision to choose her as his running mate has certainly changed the dynamics of the race.

"Game changer" may be a cliché, but it strikes this observer as the right cliché.

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New York Times columnist William Safire and his research team tracked the term back to 1982, in a baseball story in The Washington Post: "Singleton hit his game-changer ... fair by eight yards."

A game-changer, in this particular sense, is that one particular action or event in an athletic contest – a base hit, a basket, a completed pass, or maybe a fumble or a dropped ball – changes the dynamic of a game. As Mr. Safire notes, the metaphor has been carried over to the business world as well as to politics.

In some ways an election is between two candidates, or two parties. At another level, it's a contest between the knowns and the unknowns, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have said.

On one side are the policy papers, the schedules, the ads, the fundraising events, and all the other things that reflect conscious action on the part of the campaigns.

On the other side are all the things that can't be planned but just happen – a slip of the tongue during a debate, a photo that someone happens to snap. Any of these can change the dynamics of an election.

As anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention lately has had an opportunity to hear, this race is about "change." Both major parties are claiming to be "agents of change," albeit without much specificity. You've got to admit, though, as a shorthand, "change" is pretty concise: one syllable.

Someone remarked eight years ago, when it was Bush vs. Gore, that it seemed we were down to monosyllabic candidates' names. The idea that within living memory the Democrats had run someone named Adlai E. Stevenson III seemed just too quaint. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, anyone?

And change itself is a word that works on many different levels, from the grand ("He returned from his years abroad a changed man") to the mundane ("Give me a couple of minutes to change my clothes and I'll be ready to go").

It's an odd coincidence that all this "game changing" discussion has gone on as the world of sports has taken note of the death of Don Haskins. He was the coach who made college basketball history in March 1966 by starting five black players when his team at Texas Western (today the University of Texas at El Paso) faced the University of Kentucky in the national championship game.

Haskins, whose story was told in the 2006 movie "Glory Road," literally changed the face of college basketball. Haskins wasn't trying to score points as a reformer; he wanted to win the game, and he did, 72-65.

As John Feinstein wrote in The Washington Post, "Basketball people now refer to Texas Western-Kentucky as the Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball."

I know I'm not the first to point this out, but I can't resist: Haskins really was a game-changer.

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