Last week, on a trip to Iowa, Joe Biden had what football announcers call a tough afternoon. He mangled a line about “poor kids” and “white kids.” He confused two British prime ministers. He refused to call Donald Trump a white supremacist. He said, “We choose truth over facts.”
That was the press’s cue, once again, to ask whether the 76-year-old Biden can stay upright through a long campaign season—if he has what it takes to win the big one. If this journalistic ritual sounds familiar, you may know it by its sportswriting equivalent. Reporters are covering Biden like he’s an aging quarterback.
Gazing at an old quarterback’s ’scoped knees and slouching shoulders is a rich (in all senses of the word) tradition in sportswriting. Every TV debate show has a segment where the hosts compare Tom Brady, age 42, to the NFL’s actuarial tables. In 2006, Sports Illustrated began a profile of 36-year-old Brett Favre by quoting Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” A photo of a bloody, helmetless Y.A. Tittle, snapped in his final season, is the most vivid image of pro football’s carnage.
Biden isn’t Brady or Favre or even Tittle. He’s more like the Tony Romo of politics, a manic improviser whose gaffes often overshadow his talent. But Biden and aging quarterbacks both follow the same narrative arc.
When sportswriters cover an old QB, the first thing they do is demand he make a decision about whether he’ll play another season. They plead: Make up your mind, already! To which the QB’s handlers reply: He earned the right to take his time!
Favre spent every offseason between 2007 and 2010 deciding whether he’d play again. It was a lot like Biden’s period of pondering that stretched until April 25, long after most candidates had entered the race. Biden’s campaign had scandals before it was officially a campaign.
Sportswriters are usually so open with their doubts about an old quarterback’s ability that the QB says he’s playing to defy them. “I’ve got so much desire, so much pride,” Joe Namath said in his final year in pro football. “Some people don’t think I can play anymore, but they’re wrong and I’m going to prove them wrong.” With only minor editing, you could slip those words into Biden’s stump speech.
A sacred rite of covering an old quarterback is complaining that he’s too pigheaded to compensate for the effects of aging. Well into his 30s, Favre thought his improvisational skill was key to his greatness. “If I can’t do that, I can’t play,” he told SI’s Jeff MacGregor.
The political version of Favre rolling right and throwing the ball into triple coverage is “Biden being Biden.” “He’s uncoachable,” a Democratic strategist told Politico. “I’m Joe Biden,” Biden declared Thursday at the Iowa State Fair. “I’ve always been who I am.”
“Never once did he say, ‘I can’t throw it like I used to,’” one of Johnny Unitas’s teammates told the author Tom Callahan. “That’s us. We always think we can do it. ... You don’t want to give up what you love so much.” That, in a nutshell, is Biden’s ego and M.O.
Stung by sportswriter-critics, old QBs tend to vanish from the daily give-and-take with the press. Today, Brady speaks to the world mostly through Instagram and wellness tracts.
Similarly, Biden has run a campaign of infrequent events and almost no tough interviews. After getting shellacked by Kamala Harris during his first debate, Biden skipped the spin room, a time-honored move for athletes after a humiliating loss.
If pundits seem reluctant to answer those questions, as Politico’s Jack Shafer noted in a recent column, they may have learned from their sports counterparts. In 2016, ESPN’s Max Kellerman declared that Brady was “going to fall off a cliff.” Brady made the next three Super Bowls.
But let’s say Biden can’t manage an ungarbled sentence and starts to lose primaries. When an old quarterback gets himself in such a predicament, a sportswriter suggests he step aside. “There is a time and place to hang it up. Go out with dignity…” Etc., etc.
Biden has another similarity to an aging quarterback. The argument he’s putting to Democrats is essentially the same argument Favre, Namath, and Joe Montana put to general managers in their final years. You know me. We’ve won together. I may have lost a step. But do you really want to go with someone who’s untested? Eventually, Favre, Namath, and Montana lost the argument.
But if the Biden coverage has taken the same journalistic form as that of other fading gunslingers, it’s mostly because politics writing and sportswriting share a language of cliché. What do you do but reach for the classics? After Biden’s shaky performance in Iowa, a Democratic county chair told The New York Times, “He’s pressing against Father Time, who is a very tough competitor.” See, I would have gone with the tighter, crisper “Father Time is undefeated.” That’s why you leave sportswriting to the professionals.