Presidential History

Shady Backboard Deals

Barack Obama's place in presidential sports history

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President Barack Obama takes office today as a new kind of chief executive, the kind who promises vast, debt-swelling expenditures with no clear purpose, who appoints cabinet members with tax irregularities and illegally employed nannies, who was groomed by a local political machine fabled for its corruption and…. Well, there is one aspect of Obama's new presidency that may actually be new: his choice of sports-related showboating.

Obama's stated ambition to replace the White House bowling alley with a basketball court puts an official stamp on a long-term cultural shift. Football, the ascendant national pastime since at least the late 1950s, has been eclipsed by basketball. And the tedious tradition of White House athleticism has turned a new corner.

Presidents don't make sport or law, but they sign off on both. Obama's positioning of himself as an enthusiastic pickup hoopster ratifies a shift that dates back to well before the coming of Michael Jordan. No previous White House resident has attempted to define a presidential persona in the paint. According to John Sayle Watterson's 2006 book The Games Presidents Play, only George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Bess Truman had documented basketball experience at all.

The president's dismantling of the Nixon-installed bowling alley may resemble sour grapes from a scrub who famously rolled a 37 at Altoona's Pleasant Valley lanes before the 2008 Pennsylvania primary. It is more than that. John F. Kennedy's inspiration in the 1960 election was to see through the truism that baseball was still the national pastime. To polish off his dashing, clubby image, Kennedy skipped the proletarian diamond and made gestures at informal touch football games with his innumerable family members—highlighting a sport that was both more dynamic than baseball and more closely associated with a college education.

Kennedy's elevation of the pigskin outlasted him. As the sixties went on, America saw the merger of the American Football League and the National Football League, the invention of the Super Bowl, and the codification of sabbath television as we know it. Some might chalk this up to coincidence, but as either Vince Lombardi or George Allen did or did not say, coincidence is the residue of total preparation and a captive White House press corps. The Kennedy imprimatur marked football's supplanting of baseball as America's sport.

Baseball is a slow-moving spectacle that rewards patience and exults in the spirit of the working man (at least the working man who can afford a $7 hot dog). Communist leaders from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez have been players and fans, and a Mao-era history of Chinese baseball called the sport "one of the most loved sporting activities of the People's Liberation Army." To this day, U.S. leftists try to earn patriotic cred by broadcasting their baseball fandom. The sport came into its own during the era of massive government growth. Statistics in William B. Mead and Paul Dickson's coffee table book Baseball: The Presidents' Game tell the tale: Harry Truman, whose administration featured the coagulation of the New Deal, attended more Major League games than any other president.

Football, as George Carlin never tired of explaining, was more a sport for the jet age. Thus the bond between the oval ball and the Oval Office only grew through the administrations of Nixon (who shellacked North Vietnam in Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II) and Gerald Ford, a former University of Michigan center whom Watterson dubs "The Pigskin President." True to his big-tent ideals, Ronald Reagan straddled the past and present pastimes, playing Cardinals pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film The Winning Team and Notre Dame utility player George Gipp in 1940's Knute Rockne, All American. Presidential football jumped the shark in 1992, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore tossed around a Nerf ball on a campaign bus, to little effect.

Measured in dollars, basketball is still not the top American sport. The NFL and Major League Baseball both pull down more revenues than the National Basketball Association's $3.384 billion per year. But basketball is a New Economy sport. It moves faster; it values individual expression. The NBA labor force is highly entrepreneurial, and the sport's tradition of trash talk harmonizes with our post-euphemistic age. (Could the Eagles or the Phillies have produced such a piercing pundit and straight-talking drunk driver as Charles Barkley?)

In fact, the current mood of Old Economy retrenchment and pan-galactic economic holocaust raises the possibility that Obama is bringing hoop to the White House too late, that maybe jai-alai or trepanation is the real presidential sport of the 21st century. Obama is trying to marry the most exuberant and individualistic of team sports to an administration committed to solemnity, collective purpose, and coerced austerity. That sounds like an unstable match.

We should hope so. There is something not subtly creepy about presidential sport. The sporting presidency partakes of an aggrandizing leadership tradition in which Vladimir Putin wrestles tigers by grabbing the scruff of their necks and pounding their man-eating heads together; Benito Mussolini, or before him the Emperor Commodus, wallops fall-guy athletes in staged competitions; President-elect Kennedy writes a philippic against "The Soft American" for Sports Illustrated; and Kim Jong-Il hits 18 holes-in-one while composing patriotic opera and extracting confessions from subversives and sexual deviants.

The disc-rupturing machismo necessary for a cult of great-leader sport has its necessary reaction in masculine panic. Teddy Roosevelt, whom Watterson calls (correctly, in this reader's view) the template for the sporting president, built his compulsive athleticism on such vaporous sitting-room weaknesses as asthma, nearsightedness, neurasthenia, and a "sickly" constitution. That Kennedy SI article appeared in an atmosphere of hysteria about the mental and physical enfeebling of American boys through television, suburbs, comic books, Momism, and other destroyers of bodily essence.

So it's no surprise that presidential sport frequently produces counterproductive or fictional results. Jimmy Carter's doctor persuaded the president to quit a six-mile Fun Run after noting that he looked "pale, wobbling and moaning." Dwight D. Eisenhower's fondness for golf (the actual, rather than symbolic, presidential sport) got him into trouble: first with the public, in a widely reported campaign to cleanse squirrels from a South Lawn putting green; next with his doctor, who after an official presidential heart attack advised Ike that the game was a great way to ruin a long walk; finally with the Democrats, who pressed the image of a duffer do-nothing president hard enough that, according to Don Van Natta Jr. in his book First Off the Tee, Kennedy and Nixon became squeamish about being seen on the links. (That attack remained operative 50 years later, when George W. Bush was erroneously accused of playing golf during the ruin of New Orleans.)

More often, president and sport end up in hilarious mismatches. Morbidly obese William Howard Taft gets credited for being the Baseball President, having established the first-pitch tradition. On the other hand, Ford, a true athlete who turned down an offer from the Green Bay Packers, was regarded as a stumblebum while in office, for reasons that are nearly forgotten by history. The comedian Chevy Chase launched his career doing an impression of Ford that consisted only of pratfalls and butterfingers gags.

It may be an encouraging sign that during his December vacation Obama took to the golf course with a cheerless sense of duty, as if he'd rather slink out of sight and light one up. Perhaps he is already tiring of the imperial presidency's wasteful physical demands.

If so, the real winners will be the American people. Our political system is supposed to provide a limited place for government in all aspects of our lives, including our leisure lives. Not having to attend to the vanity of our leaders is part of the deal. This year promises new rounds of unpopular intervention in markets, personal morality, and (if history is any guide) countries that haven't done anything to us. But we still have the right not to care whether the president has a good hook shot or gets to keep his Blackberry. And there is yet hope that as long as we never have a hockey president we won't get Canadian-style health care.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh writes from Los Angeles.

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43 responses to “Shady Backboard Deals

  1. The White House bowling alley is tiny – it only has one lane. How are you going to get a basketball court in there?

    Does seem like he’s going out of his way to make some kind of statement by wanting to rip it out instead of just building a court somewhere else.

  2. Sorry, Tim, but I found the essay uninteresting.

  3. Actually it appears he was mostly joking from statements he’s made over the last few months. Also, the White House already has a basketball court, albeit an outdoor one.

    http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/grounds/basketball-court.htm

  4. Sorry, not buying it. Shooting hoops – unlike passing a football, or pitching a baseball – is something you can do by yourself, and can be an aid to contemplation. However, it is hardly representative of a modern trend when the popularity of basketball has only recently upturned from a long down trend. If Obama’s sporting interests coincided with those of vastly increasing popularity in the nation, he would have added a stock car track or a mixed martial arts ring.

  5. You’re way off about basketball, Cavanaugh. The showy, individualistic “Be Like Mike” style of ball that made the NBA so boring in the 1990s (when everyone decided to be like Mike) has given way to a disciplined, team-oriented game played by people who can hit long jumpers. We’ve got power forwards raining threes these days. The pass is back.

  6. OMGosh can it be Noon already, lets get Dictator Bush outta there before he causes any more damage! Good Riddance Bush!

    RT
    http://www.privacy-web.us.tc

  7. No, in America it still goes like this:

    Football

  8. (Oops)

    Football… Baseball… Basketball… soon to be overtaken by Hockey… … … … Soccer

  9. You know, bowling is one of those sports that you can drink beer while playing, like whiffleball or skeet shooting. Don’t knock it.

  10. Prediction: Not even Obama can make women’s basketball popular.

    The TiVo caught the last part of the North Carolina game when recording the Australian Open. North Carolina is the No. 2 team in the nation. The upper stands were completely empty and the lower stands were, at most, 70% full.

  11. Thanks SF for ruining an already bad day with the Title 9 reminder.

  12. Not even Obama can make women’s basketball popular.

    How could you not like a basketball game that ends up 64-49? whee…

  13. football is and always will (as far as I’m concerned) be the ultimate American spectator sport. It has all the battle-tactics, war-like stuff that America craves.

    Personally though, I enjoy alpine skiing as my sport of choice.

  14. Leela: Femputer, be reasonable. Sure men are annoying and they wreck up whatever planet they’re in charge of, but most of these men are sorta my friends. They don’t deserve to die.

    Femputer: Hmm. Perhaps men are not as evil as Femputer thinks.

    Thog: But they make fun women’s basketball.

    Femputer: What? Did you explain how the women’s good fundamentals make up for their inability to dunk?

    Ornik: Yes. They still laugh.

    Femputer: The men must die.

  15. You know, bowling is one of those sports that you can drink beer while playing, like whiffleball or skeet shooting. Don’t knock it.

    Don’t forget Curling…

  16. That was an awful lot of words for not saying much.

  17. If Obama had replaced the White House football field with a basketball court, this would make sense.

    Really, though, compare TV ratings for the NBA Finals vs. the Super Bowl (or even against the NFL playoffs in general). Football is still king at the pro level, and it will be king at the college level too if/when they ever get the national championship business sorted out.

  18. I’m not sure if that’s apples-to-apples or not, cunnivore, because the NBA Finals are a series.

  19. REAL change would be replacing the bowling lane with a curling rink.

    That would go over huge with Obama’s all-important Bemidji, MN constituency.

  20. oops, didn’t see Taktix?’s comment.

  21. Don’t forget Curling…

    According to Weird Al’s “Canadian Idiot”, curling is not a real sport. And we all know that Weird Al is always correct.

  22. Measured in dollars, basketball is still not the top American sport.

    And never will be. Dude, do you even watch sports? Basketball peaked in the 80’s and early 90’s and still fell short of football’s popularity. It’s nowhere near as popular now. Now it’s a cable product playing to half empty arenas.

  23. The 2006 Curling World Championiships were held in the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA.

  24. I think George Will is clutching his pearls at the notion that baseball is some commie game that only commies love.

    Overall, there was a Chapmanesque quality to this article.

  25. According to Weird Al’s “Canadian Idiot”, curling is not a real sport. And we all know that Weird Al is always correct.

    I can’t dispute a statement by the all powerful, the all knowing, the all wise Weird Al. HOWEVER, I firmly believe that a few more years of aging will bequeath upon him an appreciation for early-bird dinner specials and shuffleboard. Then we shall see if he revisits his condemnation of curling.

    And, Joe, I attended the 2006 CWC in Lowell as a spectator. It is a beautiful activity.

  26. Football, the ascendant national pastime since at least the late 1950s, has been eclipsed by basketball.

    I didn’t RTFA because, frankly, I don’t really care, but can someone explain how that statement has and grounding in reality?

    I don’t see companies paying $30 million for 30-second spots during the NBA finals.

    Just sayin’.

  27. joe, I’d be shocked if the final game of the NBA Finals even matched the ratings of the NFL Wild Card round. That might be a product of having lived my life in two NFL cities that don’t have an NBA team, but I don’t think so.

  28. SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!

    SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!

  29. The 2006 Curling World Championiships were held in the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA.

    And they had to do it on a Tuesday morning because The Lion King On Ice had the rest of the week booked.

  30. Title IX gave us the Olympic Women’s Beach Volleyball team.

  31. Title IX gave us the Olympic Women’s Beach Volleyball team.

    Government coersion you can live with!

  32. Pretty incoherent in both style and substance. Picked at random:

    “The disc-rupturing machismo necessary for a cult of great-leader sport has its necessary reaction in masculine panic. Teddy Roosevelt, whom Watterson calls (correctly, in this reader’s view) the template for the sporting president, built his compulsive athleticism on such vaporous sitting-room weaknesses as asthma, nearsightedness, neurasthenia, and a ‘sickly’ constitution.”

    So, “has its reaction in” means “is a reaction to”? And the genuine athlete TR is just as bad or worse than the fake athlete presidents — because only a closet queen would try to leave his boyhood asthma and neurasthenia behind?

    The whole piece is like this — the snarkiness of a third-string movie reviewer, but what’s the movie? Is it sports that are so contemptible, genuine liking for sports, fake liking for sports, some sports but not others? I can’t make it out.

  33. Government coersion you can live with!

    Real leg-breakers, those Title IX officers.

    “Coercion” inflation has rendered the term meaningless.

  34. You’re missing so much from this picture — how soccer, despite its lack of spectator appeal to natives in the USA, fairly suddenly 45 yrs. ago started attracting so much participation of the young. How horse racing still rakes in the dough. How hard track auto racing has had a rapid recent surge in spectatorship. And last I heard (from the late Jean P. Shepherd), the sport with the greatest particip’n in the USA was…fishing.

  35. Football…will be king at the college level too if/when they ever get the national championship business sorted out.

    They don’t even have to do that. Football’s been the premier college and even high school sport for over a century in this country. Nothing else is even close, although there are individual schools where a particular sport is bigger. The NCAA was an outgrowth of an intercollegiate football rules committee, not vice versa.

  36. I considered Obama’s statement about tearing out the White House bowling alley to be a slander against Polish-Americans. He can now rot in hell as far as I’m concerned.

  37. You know, bowling is one of those sports that you can drink beer while playing, like whiffleball or skeet shooting. Don’t knock it.

    No 16-inch softball leagues in your area?

  38. I assumed Barack Obama wanted to rip out the bowling alley because when he ventured amongst the hoi polloi in Pennsylvania he rolled a bunch of gutters.

  39. Football (American-style) still dominates every other sport in the US by a wide margin, at least on TV. Basketball has become the sport played by the most people, recently passing softball. How many people actually play football? Not many.

    As for presidents, they should all be required to play golf every day, preferably 36 holes. The less time they have to “do” stuff, the better off we all are.

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