In 1981 New Zealand was playing Australia in a hotly contested cricket test match. New Zealand had an opportunity to hit six runs off the final ball to tie the score. The Australian captain, Greg Chappell told his brother Trevor to do something strange; bowl it underarm. This act of gamesmanship made it virtually impossible for the New Zealand batsman to hit the required six. Australia won the game and the uproar began. While the maneuver was within the rules albeit through exception, it was seen as so egregious that no less than the Kiwi prime minister publicly denounced the tactic. That was gamesmanship; old school.
1 : the art or practice of winning games by questionable expedients without actually violating the rules
2 : the use of ethically dubious methods to gain an objective
# 1. categorizes the noun as being used to win ‘games’. # 2. focuses on ‘gaining an objective’. In today’s culture neither definition really captures how the mechanism of gamesmanship has evolved.
Corporations have long plied a gamesmanship mentality as part of their strategic maneuvering. Airlines routinely undercut competitors prices in certain markets in order to gain market share. Grocers offer specials and willingly taking losses on select staple products they know you need in order to get you in their store.
But what happens when gamesmanship tiptoes outside the lines where rules are stretched and ethics redefined. The element of trust in our institutions and heroes is lost. Lance Armstrong got away with his version of gamesmanship for seven Tour de France victories and millions of dollars in sponsorship compensation. His fans were none the wiser as he gamed the system to perfection. In the end he suffered, but all along he played everyone like a piano.
We used to be bystanders to tongue in cheek games of gamesmanship with relatively inconsequential results as they were carried out against an athletic opponent, business competitor, bureaucratic regulator, or a political adversary. Washington has become the new IMAX of gamesmanship and they’ve made us the saps on the receiving end. We used to call it posturing, partisanship, and more benignly, part of the game. One party’s parliamentary maneuvering to thwart the other, one branch flexing it’s perceived constitutional muscle against the other; PACs, consultants, and donors all have stretched the limits of any conceivable ethical standard to advance an agenda.
In politics, gamesmanship and plausible deniability have always gone hand in hand as an accepted means to an end. More often than not it’s a way to buy time or provide cover. Was anyone actually gullible enough to buy the broken IRS computer theory to explain Lois Lerner’s missing email cache? How about the ridiculously exhaustive and repetitive environmental testing to stave off voting on Keystone? Or the parliamentary chicanery that each party in Congress employs to pass or bury bills?
The perpetrators begin by asking this question; How much can we get away with to advance our objective while staying in the general vicinity of boundaries, retain an appearance legitimacy, and not arouse the electorate to start asking questions that will be difficult to answer? They then establish the new boundary and quietly move the goalposts another few feet.
In the past one could shrug it off as politics as normal but even that weak standard has been lowered in the last few years. John Gruber, acknowledged co-architect for the Affordable Care Act’s implementation, recent revelations are prescient. His own words answers a crucial question; Was the Obamacare sales pitch a miscalculation or a strategy?
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. Better for the American people to be saddled with a law they don’t understand than for them to understand the law and rally against it.”
Is this not the definition of gamesmanship gone wrong? To wit; the use of ethically dubious methods to gain an objective. We were played. This gamesmanship was so good it even got Chief Justice John Roberts to bite.
If not for his candor then for his cynical and arrogant mindset Gruber became the villain du jour. Had he used the word ‘lazy’ instead of ‘stupid’ to describe the American voter he could have helped himself by being a bit less indelicate and a little more accurate. Somehow just being lazy seems a little more palatable than being called stupid.
Regrettably, he was right. At some point too many did get lazy, bought into a sales pitch instead of value, became distracted, and stopped asking questions. He knew the media who are paid to ask objective questions and do the digging were also lazy and had fallen in love with the story and the story tellers to the degree that the content no longer mattered.
As with everything else in pop culture once the genie escapes the bottle he’s not going back in. The new face of gamesmanship is here to stay as new limits of “ethically dubious methods to gain an objective” are tested on us. Pay attention and don’t get played.