Shady Backboard Deals

Barack Obama's place in presidential sports history


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.