A political football is an issue that becomes politically divisive. In fact, it becomes a problem that doesn’t get solved because the politics of the issue get in the way.
On March 16, 1972 the Sarasota Herald Tribune ran a series entitled, “Busing Takes Front Stage on America’s Political Scene.” The introduction to the series read:
Busing may be the political issue of the year. An administration official already has referred to it as the “yellow peril.” And a victorious George Wallace made it the issue of Tuesday’s Florida primary. In the first of a series of articles on the subject, we return to the historic Supreme Court decision of 1954 and examine how busing has become a political football.
In Connecticut, the Meriden Daily Journal wrote about President Hoover and the cash bonus “bugbear” of the previous two congresses on November 7, 1932. Entitled “The Bonus? It’s A Political Football But Not A Serious Issue. No Congressional Battle Expected Over Cash Payment To War Vets” the first paragraph of the report written by Rodney Dutcher was:
The cash bonus bugbear of the last two congresses has become for the time a mere political football. President Hoover kicked it into Governor Roosevelt’s territory and the Democratic candidate kicked it back — a weak, offside kick, if you ask the Republicans. Neither of the candidates and neither of the parties wish to espouse it, although it figures in various congressional contests where members are capitalizing or defending their vote on the question at the last session.
In a news article published in the New York Times on April 10, 1909 about the British government’s inability to safeguard England’s supremacy at sea and the circular that had been issued that sought to “induce the nation to fling out the Government which betrayed it, for so only can Britain be saved.” The article headline read:
Navy Scare Becomes Political Football: British Liberals Less Disturbed Since Unionists Pressed It Into Service
Back on November 30, 1869 New Zealand’s Daily Southern Cross newspaper ran a story on the nomination of candidates for five seats for Auckland City West. Of the eight men who stood for election, it was Mr. French who proved all the more interesting due to this excerpt:
Mr. French said that he had come before the electors because he had been requested to take that proud position from many of his fellow electors. as some of the electors were no doubt aware, during the past week from some cause unknown to him people had been trying to use him as a political football in order to kick him out of the field, and many of his friends had heard a report that he had retired from the contest, although during that period his advertisements had appeared in the paper stating that he solicited the votes and the interests of the electors.
The game of football as we know it today — complete with a set of rules — was first regularized in Cambridge in 1848 which helps explain why the term “political football” could not be traced back by Idiomation prior to 1869.