On March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered the final report of his investigation, the “Mueller Report,” to the Department of Justice. Attorney General William Barr released a summary of the report’s conclusions two days later. In response, and almost immediately, partisans on all sides “moved the goalposts.”
A New York Times editorial scolded “the majority of Democratic leadership” for letting Trump “move the goal posts.”
[T]hey put too many eggs in the Mueller basket, and allowed Trump to move the goal posts. Indeed, now the goal posts are permanently affixed to skates.[i]
A Fox News editorial scolded the Democrats “moving the goal posts” themselves.
Almost from the start, Democrats and their media echo chamber have moved the goal posts on collusion.[ii]
In subsequent weeks, talking heads, editorialists, and journalists increasingly accused politicians from one party or the other of “moving the goalposts.”
All of which raises more serious questions – how long have people been metaphorically moving goalposts, where did it begin, and why?
In 1990, William Safire, writing in his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine (October 28), quoted Peter Stothard, the United States editor of The Times of London as saying “this term is British,” despite listing an earliest-known example of the expression in 1978 spoken by an American, Albert V. Casey, the CEO of American Airlines. But William Safire did not have the benefit of current digital archive and search technology. Another British airline executive did in fact use the expression a year earlier,[iii] but even then, it was decades after its first use in the United States and long usage in Canada.
The proverbial “goalposts” are from American or Canadian football, not soccer. The expression appeared as early as 1932, in a debate over proposed rules changes at the Democratic National Convention. It doesn’t appear with any frequency until the 1950s and 1960s, and then only in Canada, primarily in British Columbia. The expression did not appear regularly in American newspapers until the 1970s; increasingly so after 1974 when the National Football League actually did move the goalposts from the goal-line to the back of the end-zone.
And even when new, the expression itself was not cut from whole cloth. It appears to be a specific variant of an earlier, more general idiom, “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Changing the Rules . . .
During war games of the British Navy in 1889, the British fleet captured three ships of the Achillean fleet. A subsequent order to release the ships was considered unfair.
These instructions are tantamount to an alteration of the rules in the middle of the game, and seeing that the very last ton of coal at Falmouth was used in coaling them, and that a redistribution of the Fleet was made on their being counted on this side, it is not too much to say that this order has utterly upset, for the moment, the strategical and coaling arrangements.
The Standard (London), August 22, 1889, page 5.
Years later, the expression appeared in Canada, coincidentally in a debate about the British Navy. Canada was debating the creation of its own navy to protect its shores, instead of relying on the British Navy as it had since its founding. Conservative politicians decried the move as traitorous; an insult to the capabilities of the British Navy. Liberal politicians like Sir Wilfrid, on the other hand, wanted “Canada to come forward and take her share of the defense.”[iv]
Dr. Michael Clark, the “fighting Liberal” criticized efforts by conservatives to close debate and force their own navy bill through Parliament.
The Victoria Daily Times (British Columbia), May 13, 1913, page 7.
Referring to the closure, Dr. Clarke said that the government had changed the rules in the middle of the game. What did the people of Ontario call a man who would do that? “A coward,” shouted one, “a cheap sport,” said another. “Then we will take the argument on our side and make them dead sports,” said Dr. Clarke.
Winnipeg Tribune, May 6, 1913, page 4.
The United States had a maritime debate of its own the following year, in the early days of World War I, before it joined the fight.
Sir: Perhaps the most underhand and contemptible movement in this country since the outbreak of the European war is the agitation, apparently well organized, to prevent by means of embargo legislation the sale and shipment of supplies and munitions of war to the belligerents.
. . . [N]ot only is it bad economic policy, since it would stop many forms of industrial activity and increase unemployment; not only is it without precedent, since during the Russian-Japanese and the Balkan wars American dealers were allowed to get what few orders they could in competition with English, German and French manufacturers, but is, worst of all, essentially un-American, since it proposes to “change the rules in the middle of the game,” a thing abhorred by all lovers of fair play.
New York Tribune, December 17, 1914, page 10.
A generation later, the expression appeared prominently in widespread reports to change the nominating rules in the middle of the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the change as a way to break the South’s stranglehold of power over the party.
Several prominent Democrats came out in favor of change; but only after the Convention, not during. Former candidate William McAdoo (who lost the nomination to Alfred E. Smith in 1924) and Senator Harrison of Mississippi were quoted using similar language in opposition to the rule change in “the middle of the game.”[v]
New York’s Democratic Mayor Jimmy Walker made a similar point, using slightly different words, a couple days later. Perhaps he was a fan of the New York Football Giants.
“The two-thirds rule will be a good thing to abolish for the next convention, but trying to change it now is like moving the goal posts up five yards in the middle of a football game. It’s a sport-loving country, and we prefer play according to the rules.”
The News (Paterson, New Jersey), June 28, 1932, page 3.
This is the only example of the idiom I could find before it popped up again in Canada in the 1950s. But it wasn’t the only reference to literally moving of goalposts. The goalposts had actually been moved in college and professional football in 1927, resulting in a significant drop in scoring. The move was controversial, sparking years of debate, which might easily have informed Jimmy Walkers’ choice of idiom. The National Football League moved the goalposts back to their original, “proper” position on the goal-line before the 1933 season.
The Placement of Goalposts
When the rules of American football were laid down in the early-1880s, the length of the field was set at 110 yards, with the goalposts at the goal-line. Without the forward pass (it would not be legal until 1907), there was need for an end-zone beyond the goal-line; the field simply ended. Touching the ball down across the line scored a touchdown.
The advent of the forward pass in 1907 changed the game, but it didn’t immediately change the field. As first enacted, the forward pass rules did not permit catching a touchdown pass beyond the goal-line. In a game in which people had always scored by crossing the line with the ball, there may have been a conceptual difficulty in imagining an extension of the field beyond the goal-line where the football might be caught.
But after several years of experience, the rules-makers caught up to the new passing game. In 1912, they extended the length of the field from 110 yards to 120 yards; shortening the distance between goal-lines to 100 yards with end-zones ten yards-deep beyond the goal-lines. The goalposts moved ten yards closer to one another, but remained on the goal-line. And in one fell-swoop, the best seats in the house went from the 55-yard line to the 50-yard line.
Goalposts on the goal-line were perceived as problematic even before the forward pass and touchdown pass were legalized. In 1904, Princeton, Harvard and other universities called for moving the goalposts behind the goal-line, if for different reasons.
Princeton is in favor of the change because such a move would solve the problem of the relative value of the touchdown and field goal. Harvard and several other colleges are favorable to such a change, because it would serve to eliminate physical danger. This is unquestionably the strongest argument for moving the goal back.
Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 23, 1904, page 14.
The goalposts created even more problems for the new passing game, particularly after 1912 when they interfered with the path of balls thrown into the end-zone.
The debate was joined. As early as February 1913, football historian Parke H. Davis suggested moving the goalposts to the back of the end-zone.
Tampa Times, February 7, 1913, page 9.
|Boston Globe, October 3, 1927, page 11.|
But the move did little to stop the debate. In 1927, the number of successful field-goal attempts dropped 80%, from 296 to 60, from 1926 levels, with a correspondingly significant drop in overall scoring.
Boston Globe, December 25, 1933, page 21.
As a result, the proper placement of the goalposts remained a subject of regular debate for several years.
San Francisco Examiner, October 17, 1931, page 18.
In February 1933[vi], about six months after the Democratic National Convention, the National Football League moved the goalposts again, this time back to the goal-line.
First, the pros are moving the goal posts back to the goal line, which is expected to revive the lost art of place-kicking and drop-kicking. The suspense of watching a ball soar from the toe of a Brickley or a Pfaffman on the 35-yard line, describing a deadly arc between the posts, is to be restored to the stands.
The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Alabama), July 17, 1933, page 6.
The new goalpost placement (along with a couple other offense-friendly rule changes) was a big success. Scoring doubled in 1933 over 1932 – something that did not go unnoticed in the Canadian press.
Twice as many field goals kicked; twice as many points scored, 1,105 in 57 games; a greater percentage of passes completed, 614 of 1,630 or more than 37 percent; tie games decreased from 20 percent of those played in 1932 to only five or less than five percent of the league contests in 1933.
The Winnipeg Tribune (Manitoba), December 12, 1933.
The increased offensive production in professional football revived the debate on goalpost placement in college football, where it was debated nearly every year. The debate grabbed headlines again in the late-1950s.
Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), January 4, 1958, page 13.
The Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania), January 13, 1959, page 10.
|Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 4, 1958, page 8.|
Surprisingly, however (for an expression apparently based on American football) the idiom appears to have caught on in Canada first. Or perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. American football itself was a gift from students from Montreal’s McGill University, who brought Rugby-style football to Harvard in 1874 (see my earlier post, “American Football came from . . . Canada?”).
Apart from the one-off example of the idiom in 1932, it does not appear with any great frequency until the 1950s, and then almost exclusively in Canada, in British Columbia in particular.
In the early 1950s, Arthur Laing, a Member of Parliament from Vancouver, British Columbia, used the idiom in his newspaper column, “This Week in Canada’s Parliament.”
Reaction to the Report is good throughout the country and probably Mr. Knowles expressed most people’s thoughts when he said “let’s get it adopted” before as he inferred “moving the goal posts again.”
Richmond Review (Richmond, British Columbia), July 5, 1950, page 2.
The new proposal will give us a real pension system with an assured source of continuing income to properly finance it. Let us get this system adopted first before we talk about moving the goal posts again.
Richmond Review (Richmond, British Columbia), May 16, 1951, page 4.
The expression appeared in British Columbia again in the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.
In 1959, Gordon Gibson Sr., a lumber millionaire and “self-styled protector of the small logging operator,”[vii] criticized policies consolidation large Canadian logging firms under the control of American companies.
“They have been successful under the old rules, but now they are moving the goalposts,” he said. “They are making it impossible for anyone from now on to score a touchdown.”
The Vancouver Sun, November 18, 1959, page 21
The idiom returned in 1962, in a political debate over electrical power in British Columbia. W. A. C. Bennett, the Premier of British Columbia, was accused of moving the goalposts.
The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia), March 17, 1962, page 1.
It seems obvious that the Premier, having lost the preliminary steps instituted by the B. C. Power Corporation to have a fair price established in court, moved quickly to choke off the due processes of law. In the phrase of one shareholder, he “changed the goal-posts in the middle of the game.”
Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia), March 20, 1962, page 1.
A few months later, Bennett accused his opponents of doing precisely the same thing.
Premier Bennett will fly to Ottawa Aug. 25  for talks on the long-stalled Columbia River treaty – but he’s wondering if someone’s moved the goalposts on him.
The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia), August 10, 1962, page 3.
He has a bottmless enthusiasm for succeeding competitively through a test of wits or shrewdness, even, as Bolwell quotes one of his critics, if it means moving the goalposts while the game is in progress.
The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia), January 31, 1963, Page 6.
Nanaimo Daily News (Nanaimo, British Columbia), February 27, 1964, page 2.
(Coincidentally, future Canadian and College Football Hall of Famer (and Super Bowl loser with the Minnesota Vikings) Joe Kapp appeared on the same page.)
Despite its regular (if infrequent) use in British Columbia since at least 1950, the expression does not seem to have been very well known, even in British Columbia, as late as 1965. It seemed new in 1965, at least to a Vancouver reporter who found the idiom particularly “witty,” having recently learned it from a “resident Toronto correspondent.”
Perhaps the wittiest definition of his sense of fair play came from a resident Toronto correspondent who wrote that Bennett would win even if it meant moving the goalposts while the game was in progress.
Vancouver Sun, February 16, 1965, page 6.
Americans picked up the idiom by the 1970s.
But the Heart Association itself, a short two years ago, pegged the national average at 600 milligrams. No one knows when AHA “moved the goalposts,” if it ever has.
Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), October 10, 1971, page 42.
In 1971, controversy swirled around Clint Murchison’s management of Dallas Stadium, sparking a more subject-appropriate use of the idiom.
This quick move to wrap the insurance coverage in Murchison money is like moving the goal posts to the thirty yard line on one end of the field.
Irving Daily News (Irving, Texas), October 17, 1971, page 4.
By the early-1970s, “soccer-style” kickers’ improved field-goal kicking techniques had made field-goals and extra points much easier, thereby negating some of the reasons for moving the goalposts to the goal-line in the first place. In response, the NFL moved the goalposts back to the end-line before the 1974 season.
Ironically, Miami Dolphin Garo Yepremian, one of the kickers whose skills prompted the change, complained loudly.
“I think it’s one of the worst rules they could possibly put in,” said Yepremian when he heard that his kicks would have to travel 10 extra yards to reach the cross bars. “Now there will be even less scoring because coaches will decide to punt instead of trying long field goals. It’s going to make the game more conservative.
Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), April 26, 1974, page 21.
The debate and new rule may have played a role in making the idiom increasingly common, and crossing all political lines.
Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska), August 19, 1974, page 7.
Albany Democrat-Herald (Albany, Oregon), February 6, 1975, page 10.
Carlsbad Current-Argus ( New Mexico), June 19, 1975, page 18.
Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona), October 12, 1997, page F3.
[i] “It’s Bigger Than Mueller and Trump,” Charles M. Blow, New York Times online, March 24, 2019.
[ii] “How Long Has Mueller Known There Was No Trump-Russia Collusion?,” Fox News online, March 26, 2019.
[iii] Aberdeen Press Journal (Scotland), February 24, 1977, page 7 (“Mr. Vivian Slight, the Gatwick-based independent airline’s [(British Caledonian Airways)] legal associate, told the CAA fares panel it was an experiment that had not come up to expectations. He said BCAL now sought to ‘move the goal posts’ by introducing two new weekday off-peak fares – one for senior citizens at 50% discount and the other a year-round excursion fare at the same level as the winter weekend fare.”).
[iv] The Winnipeg Tribune (Manitoba), May 6, 1913, page 4.
[v] “McAdoo for Change in Rule, but Not During Game,” Boston Globe, June 25, 1932, page 3; “Can Win Under Old Rule, Says Harrison,” Boston Globe, June 25, 1932, page 3.
[vi] Cincinnati Enquirer, February 27, 1933, page 9.
[vii] “B. C. Entrepreneur Dead at Age 81,” Calgary Herald, July 19, 1986, page H8.