On Friday, former President Barack Obama spoke for an hour to an audience of hundreds of people at a major sports analytics* conference at MIT, but his remarks were off-the-record and kept completely secret by virtually all attendees, who had to agree that they would not record, photograph, tweet, or report on the event before being granted a seat in the audience. Reason obtained a recording of the speech, however, and the most newsworthy thing about it is the simple fact that the public wasn't supposed to hear it.
In his remarks, Obama expressed concern that Americans have segregated themselves into two "entirely different realities" where not just opinions but basic facts are in dispute, claimed to have left office without a major "embarrassing" scandal, and proved that he really loves basketball.
Those were some of the highlights from his talk at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday. The event, attended by hundreds of sports industry professionals, journalists, and students, was cloaked in secrecy. Having listened to the entire thing, I'm not sure what all the secrecy was about—it was pretty standard Obama fare, and he never once said the word Trump, though Obama did seem to imply that his White House was remarkably drama-free in contrast. Here are five key takeaways:
1) Obama thinks Google, Facebook, etc., are "a public good as well as a commercial enterprise," and should consider whether they are corroding our democracy.
Obama described social media platforms as a "hugely powerful potential force for good," but then immediately hedged. "What's also true is that our social media platforms are just a tool," he said. "ISIS can use that tool. Neo-Nazis can use that tool. I do think the large platforms—Google and Facebook being the most obvious, Twitter and others as well, are part of that ecosystem—have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise. They're not just an invisible platform, they're shaping our culture in powerful ways."
Much of that shaping is bad, according to Obama. "Essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created with not just different opinions, but now different facts," he said. "And this isn't just by the way Russian inspired bots and fake news. This is Fox News vs. The New York Times editorial page. If you look at these different sources of information, they do not describe the same thing. In some cases, they don't even talk about the same thing. And so it is very difficult to figure out how democracy works over the long term in those circumstances."
Obama noted that in other countries—like China—the government simply decides which viewpoints can be aired in public, but "that's not who we are, and that's not the society I want to live in." Even so, media giants like Facebook and Google should keep in mind that the U.S. government has a role to play in ensuring there are "basic rules of the road in place that create level playing fields."
2) It's okay to argue about how we should address climate change. It's not okay to deny the underlying science.
As an example of the kind of epistemic closure described above, Obama offered up the debate over climate change.
"You and I can have an argument about climate change in which you conclude, 'we're not going to stop the Chinese and the Indians from burning a bunch of coal, it's gone on for a pretty long time, we're just going to have to adapt, and maybe we'll invent some new energy source in the nick of time, and that's why I'm opposed to the Paris Accords,'" said Obama. "I'll come back and say, 'well no it just turns out if we just invest in some smart technology and we create a smart regulatory framework that incentivizes investment in clean energy, we can actually solve this problem now, and if we don't it's going to be catastrophic.'"
This kind of debate is healthy for a democracy, said Obama. But, "I can't have that same debate with somebody who just holds up a snowball in the middle of the Senate chamber in winter and says, 'look there's no climate change because it's snowing!' Which happened by the way. I didn't just make that up."
3) Obama really likes basketball—and he'd like it more if the NBA had a junior league.
The subject of the event was sports analytics, and the former president—known for his love of basketball—did not disappoint on that front. He discussed his own years as a mediocre high school basketball player, remarked that playing basketball with other people revealed much about their character, and opined that the NBA would be well-served by junior league "so that the NCAA is not serving as a farm system for the NBA with a bunch of kids who are unpaid but are under enormous financial pressure."
"It's just not a sustainable way of doing business," said Obama. "Then when everybody acts shock that some kid from extraordinarily poor circumstances who's got 5, 10, 15 million dollars waiting for him is going to be circled by everybody in a context in which people are making billions of dollars, it's not good." Creating an alternative league for people eventually headed to the NBA "won't solve all the problems but what it will do is reduce the hypocrisy" of pretending that all student-athletes are both students and athletes.
4) Diversity isn't about "charity or political correctness, it's just common sense." And it's why his White House was scandal-free, according to the president.
Obama didn't comment on the #MeToo movement specifically, but he did stress that it should be a top priority for companies to make women feel safe and respected at work, give them equal pay for equal work, and make an effort to actually listen to what they are saying. If women are afraid to speak up, or are talked over by men, a good boss should call on them and ask their opinions.
"In today's culture, if you are not deliberately doing that, you are going to fall behind, and someone is going to beat you," he said.
Obama said that this was the approach he took while in office, and it helped get him through eight years without a major scandal.
"We didn't have a scandal that embarrassed us," he said. The former president admitted that his team made mistakes, but no massive screw-ups. He then said, "I know that seems like a low bar," at which point the audience burst into laughter. "Generally speaking, you didn't hear about a lot of drama inside our White House," he said. This was the closest Obama came to critiquing the new administration.
5) Obama thinks the stereotype about lazy government employees is wrong.
The idea that people in the private sector work harder than the feds is a misperception, said Obama.
"At least at the top levels of the federal government, people work harder than in the private sector," he Obama. "When I came out of the White House, everything looked like it was in slow motion. I felt like I was Neo in The Matrix. Our folks were putting in 80-hour work weeks and barely getting vacations and under unimaginable pressure."
The remark came in the context of a discussion about child-leave policies—Obama suggested that since he had found a way to accommodate his hard-working staff members with familial commitments, despite the demanding nature of the job, so too could the private sector.
"We set up policies that if you had a child, you had a parent teacher conference, you had the things that needed to be done to raise someone, that was part of the deal," he said. "The private sector has to step up because it's smart business. The data shows it."
The full audio recording is below.
*CORRECTION: The MIT conference was described as being about sports policy in the original version of this article. It was about sports analytics.
Photo Credit: Douliery Olivier/ABACA/Newscom