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The Time magazine’s (April 28) article titled “McCain Slams Obama on OBL” begins with the following lines:

“Arizonan (John McCain) tweaks the President for spiking the bin Laden football while "the Assad regime...kills thousands of its own people." McCain: "It is no wonder why President Obama is shamelessly turning the one decision he got right into a pathetic political act of self-congratulation."

However as the phrase “spiking the bin Laden football” was replaced with the phrase, “highlighting bin Laden's death” in the other (later) version of the same article on Time website, I assume that “spike something football” here is meant something like “show off / demonstrate/ boast of.” I wonder why the Time took bother of replacing “spiking the bin Laden football” with “highlighting bin Laden's death,” if it means the same thing.

What's wrong with “spike something football” as an expression? By the way, is it a frequently used English idiom, not only in America but in other English speaking countries, e.g U.K, Canada and Australia?

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4 Answers 4

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I believe that the term "spiking" alludes (metaphorically) to driving the pointed end of a U.S. or Canadian football straight down into the ground. I don't know whether the term is used in Australian-rules football. The term probably originated in the United States in the 1960s, when players celebrating a touchdown would slam the ball into the turf after the play; eventually referees treated this behavior as an infraction of the rule against "unsportsmanlike conduct," and later it came to be bundled with other inappropriate celebratory behavior (doing odd calisthenics, performing little dances, writing on the ball with a previously concealed pen, etc.) under the heading of "taunting" or "excessive celebration," as the previous answerer says.

Much more recently, "spiking the ball" has been extended to describe the act of throwing a short uncatchable pass near a receiver almost immediately after the ball is snapped (that is, hiked) to the quarterback, in order to stop the game clock; the clock stops after an incomplete (uncaught) pass, and teams often use up the few timeouts they are permitted to take in each half of the game and so must sometimes throw an incomplete pass to give them time to set up a more coherent play. If the quarterback throws the ball nowhere near a receiver, the offensive team may be penalized for "intentional grounding"--that is, for throwing the ball away on purpose--a tactic that, if permitted, would enable offensive players to avoid being tackled for a loss of yardage. Theoretically, it might seem that spiking the football always amounts to "intentional grounding" and therefore ought to be subject to a penalty; but referees interpret a pass as being legitimate if an eligible receiver is within a few yards of the ball when it strikes the ground or sails out of bounds--whether the quarterback wanted it to be caught or not.

I agree with the previous answerer's analysis of the McCain quotation.

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'Spiking the football' is a term from American football. It means to deliberately throw the ball to the ground. It can be a legitimate play, but it also often occurs after scoring a touchdown.

In college level football, this move is actually illegal as it is considered excessive celebration.

Therein lies McCain's metaphorical phrase of 'spiking the bin Laden football'. The implication here is that Obama was celebrating his victory excessively.

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+1 since I see you're right, though I didn't know this before. At first I thought OP's quote was a reference to spiking someone's guns - an expression still used figuratively today, deriving from to render (a cannon) ineffective by blocking its vent with a spike –  FumbleFingers Apr 28 '12 at 20:40

I'm sure the reason "spike the football" was replaced with "highlighting Bin Laden's death" is because the publisher felt that non-U.S. readers would be unfamiliar with the term "spiking the ball" which is unique to American football. This changes the meaning dramatically, as president Obama famously said the he would not "spike the football" regarding the Bin Laden killing. Perhaps the president is actually doing an "end zone dance" instead of "spiking the ball."

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Two language-use reason, one political reason.

The first language-use reason is that Time publishes internationally, and while it publishes articles outside the US that are in American English this gives it a reason to avoid phrases that are obscure outside North America. Gridiron football is a minority sport outside of North America, so expressions based on its conventions don't have a lot of currency outside of that area.

The second is "spiking the football" isn't just highlighting something, but making a great, arguably unseemly, act of celebration about it. This isn't quite what McCain accused Obama of doing, so isn't quite apt.

The political reason is that in using an expression Obama himself used about the killing in describing something McCain said about it (note that the phrase wasn't in the actual quote from McCain, but in the journalist's summary) this adds a further rhetorical attack on Obama in that it doesn't just quote McCain's accusation, but reminds readers that Obama had said "there's no need to 'spike the football,' and so adds its own accusation of hypocrisy. A later editorial decision may have considered this as being too far along the spectrum from objective reportage and editorialised opinion and so the edit was made to reduce this.

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