Back in 1976, country recording artist Bobby Bare had a hit on his hands with the song, “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts of Life.” It was a humorous song that crossed over to radio stations with non-country music formats. But where did Bobby Bare come up with the idea of goalposts being idiomatic for describing life? And is a positive or negative connotation when someone moves the goalposts?
If you hear someone accusing a person or company of shifting or moving the goalposts, they’re alleging that the person or company has changed the rules while everything is in progress. Whether it’s done so the company or other person can come up the winner, if it’s done to set someone up for failure, or if it’s just to complicate a situation, is immaterial. It’s a case of changing the rules while the “ball” is in play.
On February 2, 2016, journalist James Longstreet writing for the American Thinker shared his article about Dianne Feinstein, Vice-chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. had commented on the Hillary Clinton email situation. He stated that some of what Dianne Feinstein had to say on the subject had shifted the focus to impact on the Democrat primary. The article was titled, “Hillary Email Scandal: Feinstein Moves The Goal Posts, Raises Many Questions.”
Five years earlier, in on July 22, 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) gave a press conference on the debt ceiling, and the reasons why he pulled out of negotiations with President Barack Obama on the topic of raising the legal limit to borrow money ahead of the August 2, 2011 deadline at which point the U.S. would no longer be able to pay all its bills.
The problem, according to John Boehner, was that the White House was demanding an extra $400 billion in revenues to the already agreed upon $800 billion (resulting in a tax increase for Americans). He claimed that the White House refused to consider serious expenditure cuts, and was not interested in making hard decisions that would benefit America. In his comments to the press, he stated in part:
And a tax system that was more efficient in collecting the taxes that were due the federal government. And let me just say that the White House moved the goalpost.
In the article, “Uses and Misuses Of Strategic Planning” written by Daniel H. Gray and published in the Harvard Business Review of January 1986, the writer took on the subject of corporate America’s problems as they pertained to formal strategic planning. He discussed how it was the poor preparation and incomplete implementation of decisions made through strategic planning that caused corporate America to struggle. This is how he incorporated the idiom in his article:
What actually does happen is often rather primitive: exhortation, backdoor dealing, across-the-board cuts, moving the goalposts, and mandated performance promises. In other words, the units’ plans are force-fit in various ways into the corporate plan. At this stage of the game, companies normally focus their attention more on the numbers in the business plan than on the strategies.
Back in 1978, Albert Vincent Casey had been with American Airlines for four years after starting his career in the railroad industry. He had been tapped to be their CEO at a time when the airline was struggling with a burdensome debt load and high costs due to premium services that were a hallmark of the airline. He piloted the company through this turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s. With regards to deregulation of airlines, he was quoted in the February 4, 1978 edition of the Washington Post thusly:
“They keep moving the goal posts,” he lamented. “We’re not afraid of deregulation, though,” he said, “if they really took off all the wraps.”
Just a few years earlier, Time magazine used the idiom in the body of an article as well as in the title. Published on March 6, 1972, the article, “JOBS: Moving The Goal Posts” took on the concept of what full employment meant.
To economists and politicians, “full employment” does not mean what the words suggest: a job for absolutely everybody who wants one. Instead, the working definition has long been a jobless rate no higher than 4%. Even by that measure, the U.S. has rarely enjoyed full employment since World War II; the last time was in the closing months of the Johnson Administration and the early days of the Nixon era. Now the President’s aides are redoubling efforts to bring the jobless rate back from nearly 6% toward full employment by the elections. Instead of launching another new economic game plan, however, they are trying to move the goal posts.
In Spanish, the idiom is cambiar las reglas del juego. In French, the idiom is changer les règles du jeu pendant la partie. Another way of saying this idiom in English is to say that the rules of the game were changed.
The word goalposts first came into being in 1834 and referred to sports requiring upright posts to allow for goals in a game involving two opposing players or teams. At that time, the goal was identified two upright posts supporting a crossbar of a goal.
Used in the current way, it’s easy to understand how, when someone moves the goalposts, it is an unexpected and frustrating occurrence for the person or persons focused on reaching the formerly identified goal.
Moving goalposts was even frowned up in the Christian Bible where it states this in Proverbs 22:28.
Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.
Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version going back before 1972, however, the fact that it was used with ease in a Time magazine article published in early 1972 indicates that the idiom was understood by the public at large. It is most likely that move the goalposts as we understand the idiom to mean these days, came about in the 1960s.