A political football is an otherwise non-partisan issue which politicians try to capitalize on and turn to their advantage. Something is said to be a political football when politicians don’t seem to be trying to solve the problem at hand – instead, they are may be using the issue to posture and gain political “points.”
The first known use of the term dates back to 1857, where it was used in a Maine newspaper.
“Political football” is a pejorative term; politicians might be urged not to turn an issue into a political football, for example. This is also a way of saying that politicians aren’t taking the problem seriously. Politicians are sometimes said to be “playing political football” or else turning a given issue into a political football which is then tossed back and forth, from side to side.
During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, many commentators noted that face masks were being used as a “political football” by politicians on both sides of the aisle – and by image-conscious corporations as well. Commentators charged that politicians were over-simplifying the issue, with Republicans sometimes framing masks as an infringement on their liberties while Democrats vilified mask-refusers, without taking their circumstances into account.
Polling showed that Republicans were less likely to wear a mask outside of their homes than Democrats were, but analysts also agreed that a lot of that difference may have been down to geography; Democrats are likelier to live in dense, urban areas where they aren’t always able to socially distance. Republicans are likelier to live in rural areas where they can socially distance much more easily.
Laws about whether to require face masks are determined at the local level, which has created a very irregular system across the United States. As CBS has noted, “facial coverings or mask requirements have become a political football, leading to a patchwork of mandates across various states. Roughly 20 states and Washington, DC, have a statewide mask mandate, while several, including in new hotspots Arizona and Florida, do not.”
Similarly, Bloomberg charged that President Trump was treating TikTok, the wildly popular, Chinese-owned social media app, as a political football. (The Bloomberg piece opened, It’s official. TikTok has become a political football.) Bloomberg noted that the Trump administration has said they’re considering banning TikTok because of concerns about data privacy.
Bloomberg agreed that there are certainly privacy concerns around TikTok, but argued that a ban would probably be short-sighted. The piece suggested that “before the country takes the dramatic step of banning a Chinese competitor (particularly one whose users helped prank the U.S. president earlier this year), the White House should spell out its reasoning. Otherwise, the move looks like political bluster.”
Sometimes, a person can become a sort of human political football. Alyssa Mastromonaco, who was deputy White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, has argued that Monica Lewinsky was effectively treated in this way. Lewinsky, of course, was the White House intern whose affair with President Clinton led to scandal and hearings. As Mastromonaco sees it, both Democrats and Republicans used the situation to make outraged speeches and score political points – but nobody really thought about Lewinsky herself. Mastromonaco admits that she herself had the same issue for many years until, as she puts it, “In 2017, I became friends with Lewinsky—the person, not the political football. And I have not been able to look back on those days watching the impeachment proceedings the same way since.”