Bowling, Basketball, BCS, Baseball, and Birdies: Obama’s Use of Sport to Connect

President Barack Obama and Willie Mays

President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch at Major League Baseball’s All Star Game after flying to the game accompanied by Hall of Famer Willie Mays, and visiting the players in the clubhouse before the game.

He also appeared, along with former presidents, in a video celebrating community service broadcast before the game and joined the broadcast booth during the second inning of the game. A busy and sport-filled day for the new president who has used sport extensively, both as a candidate, and in his first year in office.

Sport has taken an increasingly visible role in presidential politics in recent years. During his 2000 election race, when a reporter asked George W. Bush what mistakes he had made in his life, a theme that reporters would return to often, he answered that he traded Sammy Sosa to the Chicago Cubs. One of his first interviews after his inauguration was with Bob Costas on Costas Now, and during his first year in office he began the practice of opening the White House grounds to Tee Ball on the South Lawn.

John Kerry, Bush’s opponent in the 2004 election ratcheted up the visibility of sport by taking part in hunting trips, snow boarding, and a variety of other sports, including windsurfing – which backfired when Republicans used the images to re-enforce his flip-flop image. These outings were reportedly intended to “humanize” the candidate who suffered from a less than warm image with the public.

Politicians using sport for their own ends is at least as old as Theodore Roosevelt threatening to ban football from college campuses unless something was done to lessen the brutality of the game, but President Barack Obama has increased the frequency of the use of sport to further his political aims, going beyond his predecessors in significant ways. His participation in and conscious use of sport are at once an attempt to connect with the bulk of the sporting public and an acknowledgement of the importance contemporary American cultural attachment to games.

During his run for the presidency, Obama, a high school basketball player, was often pictured playing hoops, and after turning in a miserable performance at bowling, joked that, if elected, he would replace the presidential bowling alley with a basketball court. He also maintained a rigorous workout schedule, finding time, according to an article by Washington Post writer Eli Zaslow, for at least 90 minutes a day during the end of his hectic campaign and into the transition period.

This was not a significant change from George W. Bush, his predecessor, who was steadfast in his cycling, or Bill Clinton who enjoyed a morning jog, although sometimes to McDonalds, and most presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have engaged in some form of physical activity during their presidency. As an advocate of the vigorous life, Roosevelt was perhaps the most famous of the presidential athletes, participating in boxing, hiking, hunting, and other active pursuits while in the Oval Office, but the new president seems bent on outdoing his early Twentieth Century predecessor.

Roosevelt also began the presidential habit of using the “Bully Pulpit” to encourage other Americans that participation in the strenuous life was in their best interests. Other presidents have also taken time from their busy schedules to address problems in the sporting world, including Harry Truman who, according to the daily schedules maintained by his presidential library, met on several occasions to discuss the college basketball point shaving scandal in the early 1950s, and George W. Bush who addressed the steroid scandals in baseball.

Obama has likewise used his bully pulpit so far to urge the National Collegiate Athletic Association to scrap the controversial Bowl Championship Series format for Division I football and adopt a playoff system to crown its champion. Candidate Obama urged this change in an appearance on Monday Night Football just before the election, and repeated his wish for a playoff during a 60 Minutes interview later that month and has continued calling for change since taking office.

Obama’s immediate predecessor, who did not shy away from taking controversial positions, apparently felt that the BCS was too hot to handle, reportedly being overheard saying that he had no opinion, other than to being sorry that the Texas Longhorns weren’t in the championship game.

Presidents have also used sport to connect with voters, placing themselves at the center of the attention that such events attract. Every president since Howard Taft has thrown out the first pitch at Major League Baseball games, and this activity placed, and was intended to place, them at the center of the American way of life that celebrates team sport, and the nominal National Pastime. In recent years, the venues for these celebrations of the American way have been expanded to include NASCAR (W. Bush) and Monday Night Football (Obama), among others.

For the sheer frequency of sports appearances, pronouncements, and use however, Obama has set a pace that is beyond anything his predecessors did in office. He has used sport for everything from getting elected to touting his first nomination to the United States Supreme Court, and expanded the scope of presidential visibility in the sporting world.

Even before he officially became a candidate, Obama recorded a message for MNF that began sounding political speaking about whether a contender from the Midwest had any chance, but ended with him donning a Chicago Bears cap and vocalizing the “da da da da” opening theme of the telecast. Both he and his opponent John McCain were interviewed by Chris Berman during the last game before the election, making them the first candidates interviewed on that program.

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