Political Lessons From Sports – Politicians Love Athletes

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Politicians love athletes. Perhaps love is not quite the right word. They use athletes to entertain and pacify the masses while benefitting from their celebrity.

I still have fond memories of wrestlers from all parts of Nimba County coming to Sanniquellie and wrestling for chiefs and superintendents. Long before we became football crazy, wrestling was all the rage in West Africa.

The hero in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo, the teenager whose meteoric rise to stardom begins on page one when he knocks down and breaks the seven-year winning streak of Amalinze. 

To the best of my knowledge, no professional athlete has ascended to the top job in any country. Pele’s job in Brazil carries the interesting title, Extraordinary Minister of Sport. When he’s not landing uppercuts, boxer Manny Pacquiao is a senator in the Philippines while Cricketer Imran Kahn sits in the Pakistani National Assembly.

​Liberia might be a different story. Senator George Weah is on the verge of becoming President. I contend there are lessons that, unbeknownst to the non-athlete, have helped him in this quest. 

​Tensions arise when the athlete dabbles into politics. Amongst the educated elite, or even reasonable people with a modicum of formal schooling, politics has degenerated into spiteful disrespect and outright rudeness. We have no heroes.  

Past leaders have all been ripped to shreds. In some countries, current and former leaders are viewed in the full three dimensional complexity of the human condition: the good, the bad, and the ugly, including everything in between. Fortunately, top-notch athletes have the uncanny ability to block out crowd noise and play.

The general attitude in Liberia is that footballers are “gronna” boys underserving of the highest office in the land. A notable exception is Dr. Amos Sawyer’s “recruitment” of Benedict Wesseh, arguably the greatest football player of that generation, to his Monrovia mayoral campaign against Romeo “Chu Chu” Horton.

Samuel K. Doe gave footballers the respect they deserve. Doe was a complete football fanatic; he was also hypercompetitive. I played for the Liberia Broadcasting System’s Falcons at the time.

Since we controlled the airwaves, we would often succumb to our basic instincts by over-publicizing an insignificant win in a “round town” game. Few minutes after the broadcast, Doe would be on the phone to Director General Alhaji Kromah, requesting one of many rematches against his Executive Lions. 

The game flourished under Doe and Liberia missed the world cup by one game. Footballers began playing for more than pocket change to catch the bus home. Besides football, Doe loved checkers. ​

But it was a over a chess game on the Old Road in Sinkor, that Willard Russell, one time president of the Liberia Football Association, cornered me. I had been foolish to believe that because he looked nervous and shifty, constantly biting the right side of his lower lip, he was in trouble.No, it was I who was in trouble; my queenside bishop was threatened. Trying desperately to distract him, I lobbed him an easy ball hoping he would become overzealous and smash it into the net. “How did our football program become so successful?”

I asked. He paused, and calmly told me about the youth system and how well organized it was. This system produced our golden generation, one of whom is on the verge of the presidency. Mr. Russell then callously captured my bishop, as if nothing had even happened. A reminder of one of the oldest lessons not just in football, but all sport: Never underestimate the opponent!

While it is easier for an athlete to become a politician, it is far more difficult for a politician to become an athlete. The athlete’s career is short, leaving time for other pursuits. This brevity is assured either by injury or father time. As they age, the game becomes too fast and alas, they can no longer cope. 

In most countries where democracy has not yet taken root, some see politics as a permanent career, hanging on with limb and life, fearing an uncertain future. Our infant democracy purports to correct that. 

​Success in sports and politics requires talent. But talent will get you so far and no more. The disrespect shown athletes who enter politics come from lacking a sense of how much hard work goes into becoming a successful athlete. Even those who understand fail to conclude that hard work is more important than talent.

After hard work comes teamwork. Let the ball do the running is an old adage known to even casual observers of football. The team must be carefully selected and seek to be greater than the sum of its parts. Here football comes closest to, and is in many aspects like, politics. 

Those who seek to become captain must never forget that all-important lesson every footballer learns at an early age. They must heed the opposite of Kautilya’s maxim.

Kautilya was the 4th century philosopher, regarded by many as the Machiavelli of India, who said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

What is the opposite of this maxim? The friend of my enemy is my enemy! Let’s not kid ourselves. If you befriend the enemies of the captain your own road to the captaincy will be a long and tortuous one. You will spend time on the bench or get kicked off the team. How else would you work with someone and don’t get their support? 

Gymnasiums and stadiums are littered with the dreams of superb athletes who never saw the limelight. If you wish to become captain, then listen to Sun Tzu, “Let your plans be as impenetrable as night…”

Einstein’s axiom about sports is not as widely known as his Theory of Relativity. It should be: “Learn the rules of the game and then play better than everyone else.” Who has had the most to learn about Liberian politics and who has worked harder over the last decade and played better this year than everyone else?

Never accuse the referee of cheating while the game is still on. You risk alienation. File your protest after the game. And your evidence should prove your case beyond reasonable and unreasonable doubt: reasonable doubt in a court of law and unreasonable doubt in the court of public opinion.

​When asked recently on the VOA about whether he was receiving support from President Johnson-Sirleaf, Senator Weah brilliantly pivoted by stating he was not receiving any support from the president but that he will not join others to disrespect her because he hopes to sit in that chair one day and would not want to be disrespected. 

Even after defeating Robert Sirleaf, the president’s son, in that tightly contested senatorial race, Ambassador George Weah never disrespected his opponent. Win gracefully and don’t disrespect the opponent.

Picking the right team is very important. When Ambassador Weah had significant influence in the national football team one criticism I often heard of him was, “if Weah doesn’t like you, you don’t stand a chance of making the team.”

I would always bite my tongue. I no longer do. Team choosing is a privilege of leadership. Compatibility leads to cohesion in any team. Compatibility and cohesion make it easier to sell your strategic vision. Buying into the leadership’s strategic vision increases the likelihood of team success.

​This vision must be broken down into daily, weekly goals and temporary tactics depending on the game at hand. Sometimes what is planned and discussed in the dressing room simply will not work on the field. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Sometimes the plan does not work and has to be changed altogether. The successful athlete modifies the plan to fit the game.

Sports are the only place where performance and success are open for everyone to see. Senator Weah successfully navigated his way from Clara town and the Antoinette Tubman Stadium onto the marbled streets of Milan and into the San Siro. That should count for something. 

Athletes everywhere shouldn’t be derided for seeking political office. The same gene that allows some to be supremely successful in sports shouldn’t prevent them from seeking office. This uppity nonsense has to stop. 

The modern athlete is a walking, running, jumping individual capable of making numerous decisions every nanosecond under insurmountable pressure. They are subjected to physical, psychological, and IQ tests before, and in some instances during, multi-million dollar contracts. 

This stuff is infinitely harder than swallowing fufu and pepper soup. It requires talent, hard work and an unshakable self-belief in the face of impossible odds. This is the holy trinity of the athlete! This self-confidence is often mistaken for arrogance. 

Having already made history by giving Africa its first elected female president, Liberia may well be on the way to giving the world its first pro-athlete president. Our budding democracy is at a crossroad. We are all looking for qualities in a good leader. 

While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the determinants of a successful president, and bending a football over the wall into the net is not a requirement, I am willing to bet that the real hard life lessons learned along the way will come in handy for Senator Weah.

About Author:

Octavius Obey is former Chair of the CDC in North and South Carolina, and a midfielder for Mecklenburg FC in the Over-50 division of the Charlotte Premiere Soccer League.  He played right back at Carroll High School, center forward at Cuttington and captained the Liberian National Track and Field Team.  

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