Does Donald Rumsfeld cheat at squash?

Slate, MSN’s online magazine, is always worth a look, though usually more for its political and feature writing than its sports coverage. But with a headline like: “Does Donald Rumsfeld cheat at squash?”, how could you resist?

The piece, by Michael Agger, sets the scene thus:

Squash hasn’t received this much attention since 2001, when Vicky Botwright threatened to play at the British Open in a thong. For those of you who missed it, the New York Times ran an article on Sunday titled “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on the Squash Courts” below the fold on A1. The writer, David S Cloud, draws parallels between Rumsfeld’s squash game and his “ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force.” Somewhat incredibly, Mr. Cloud also found a few people to talk trash about Rumsfeld’s game. The implication, never stated, is that the secretary of defense cheats.

So here we have the latest of Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns”. Or is it a “known unknown”?

It is certainly not unknown for senior American government figures to be accused of cheating – Vice President Spiro Agnew, from the 1970s, and more recently President Bill Clinton, have both been – how can we say politely? – arithmetically challenged when on the golf course.

Agger continues to explain the “charges” against Rumsfeld:

The article describes how Rumsfeld likes to play his afternoon game with younger underlings. Are you going to call the boss out in that situation? Not if you want to be flying around in Air Force Two. While Rumsfeld may not be technically cheating, he’s using his authority to unfair advantage… My guess is that if Rumsfeld were a “civilian” squash player, no one would want to go near him.

The Iraq parallels are more involved. According to the article, squash taught Rumsfeld that “speed kills,” and that, “If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.” This is all very suggestive of Rumsfeld’s strategy to send US forces on a quick lightning-strike at Baghdad, but it’s actually a misreading of the secretary of defense’s game. The most telling detail in the piece is that Rumsfeld plays “hardball” squash, a version that rewards smash shots and that has virtually died out in America. These days, everyone plays “softball” squash, an international version that generally favors patience and fitness over shot-making.

So at least we get somewhere close to an explanation for the American saying of “playing hardball”.

But Agger goes on to conclude that, rather than cheating, Rumsfeld is in fact just stuck in an old timer’s rut – both on the squash court and in international relations.

“The last time Americans dominated squash championships,” Agger concludes, “was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.”

To read Agger’s article in full, click here.

To read the original New York Times piece which began this debate, click here.