Amongst the snobberies of the professional political class is a real disdain for sports fans. There's a sociological study, as yet unwritten, into why that's so, but when the pollsters and consultants slice and dice the electorate into targetable groups, sports fans are not one of them. That's a mistake. What we play, what we watch, what games and plays we talk about are ways of understanding us. Fans better understand a candidate when we know what he (or she) played, plays, follows, and likes about baseball, football, golf or any American sport. And on November 6 we're going to the polls, millions of us. It turns out, in this tight race, they need us.
Two different American paradigms can be teased out of their sports interests and histories. Obama and Romney are two different men, with different ideas and different temperaments. Two different American paradigms can be teased out of their sports interests and histories. Do we want a shooting guard who trash talks, but loves the game? Do we want the smooth, consummate GM, owning and running the franchise?
We learn a lot about a politician from how they play the game. In my Albany days I played basketball against both Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, both semi-accomplished hoopsters. Cuomo is all elbows and shoves and complaints about the calls. Pataki likes to loft 30-foot jump shots and not get messy underneath the basket. Those are good summaries of how they governed.
Sports became part of the American political mythology. There's a fascinating historical record of the sports IQ and preferences of Presidential contenders. Eisenhower played football against Jim Thorpe and became golf's leading cheerleader, Nixon was a passionate Redskin fan who called a play for George Allen (it lost 13 yards), and William Taft first threw out the first ball on Opening Day (Grover Cleveland and William McKinley had refused). The finest athlete of them all might have been Gerald Ford, team MVP lineman on national champion Michigan football teams. The oddest sports connection may have been Bush the Younger, who excelled only as a Yale cheerleader, and Ronald Reagan, whose myth-making started as the doomed Gipper in Warner Bros. Knute Rockne, All American. Lest this be viewed as a Republican domain, FDR played football at Harvard and after losing use of his legs to polio stayed active as a sailor and passionate baseball fan. Herbert Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were outdoors types who hunted, fished or rode, among the rich history of Presidential participation in sports. These weren't just additional color, they were insights into personality, policy and politics.
Presidents understand and often manipulate both the intrinsic and political value of sports. Teddy Roosevelt developed the model. Some of his story is well known, a sickly, asthmatic kid who made himself healthy by exercise and continued to box, wrestle, hunt, golf, fence, fish, row and jiu jitsu for his entire life. Sports made him well, but they also expressed his view of the human condition. In competition and effort there were honor and existential pleasure. He expressly linked sports and public life in words that are easily appreciated 100 years later: “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”
Teddy Roosevelt was also the first president with a keen appreciation of the political value of sports, and the image of a winner that a sportsman projects. He was a good tennis player but wanted it kept secret. It was “unmanly.” "The true sports for a manly race are sports like running, rowing, playing football and baseball, boxing and wrestling, shooting, riding, and mountain climbing.” Roosevelt used sports to create an image of virility and action, and it made his politics, imbued with those same virtues, understandable to voters (all men at that time). He became the paradigmatic American sportsman, a political persona that survives to this day.
Unsurprisingly, sharp distinctions emerge in their history and attitudes towards sports. That sort of personal sports mythology, developed and shaped for voters, wasn't apparent in the presidential campaign of 2012, at first blush. While the second debate did have a prize-fighting quality about it, there's been almost no thoughtful reflection about the Obama/Romney sports resumes. But the election becomes clearer when seen through the prism of American sports. The changes in our sporting scene since Roosevelt certainly mirror the changes in society and politics. Sports are now multi-billion dollar industries run by moguls and barons who have little intrinsic interest in throwing, catching and running.
But for both Obama and Romney sports can be an easy way to connect with voters and instruct them about the candidate’s values and interests.
The two men are as personally and politically different as any two candidates in memory. Unsurprisingly, sharp distinctions emerge in their history and attitudes towards sports.
For Obama, sports were part of his search for identity and place. Known as “Barry” in high school, he was a bench jockey for a Hawaiian state championship basketball team, a contributor, far from a star or leader. At times he complained of insufficient playing time because he “played black” for a coach who “coached white.” He sits smack in the midst of his otherwise white teammates, and it's not clear whether he's in charge or jumped into the most visible seat. Those same ambiguities and dynamics appear when he turns to politics.
Romney's early athletic career was infinitely simpler. Never drawn to the competitive paddle tennis games enjoyed by his father, he was the family talker and intellectual. He did join the high school cross-country team. That was notable only for his highly public last-place finish, clearly in pain and struggling, in a 2.5 mile race conducted at half-time of a football game. The friendly crowd applauded his bedraggled finish. It's not a career you can invest with meaning and predictive qualities. That would come later for Romney, and from another sports perspective.
For Obama the passion and appreciation continues. He still plays sports, hard. He often uses sports metaphors to describe himself, most awkwardly at the 2004 Democratic Convention. After his wildly successful speech he crowed, “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got game.” That was the first of the sports trash-talk that pops up on the campaign trail, often to his disadvantage. And when he got his clock cleaned in the first debate, he returned to sports metaphor in an interview with Diane Sawyer, "If you have a bad game you just move on, you look forward to the next one, and it makes you that much more determined." What better way to try to re-connect with that precious group of undecided, many of whom are sports fans?
Basketball remains his core passion, with games against LeBron, George Clooney, and CBS' former NBA player Clark Kellogg. He even plays pickup ball off-camera, to the tune of 12 stitches after an elbow bloodied his upper lip last Thanksgiving. Golf is new, a little counter intuitive for a gangly Kenyan-American, and, ironically, the target of criticism from the patrician Romney.
“I scratch my head”, said Romney, “at the capacity of the president to take four hours off on such a regular basis to go golfing. I would think you could kind of suck it up for four years, particularly when the American people are out of work." On the other hand Obama hasn't really done anything about sports as president. That's been left to Michelle. She's put together a highly visible campaign to reduce obesity with exercise and sports paired with an admirable push for dietary changes.
Where Obama has really emerged into the consciousness of the American sports fan as the nation's Commentator-In-Chief. He appears often on local sports talk radio, opines on the Penn State scandal (the punishment was appropriate), the Tebow-Sanchez controversy (“there's a lot of tension in that situation”), the World Series prospects of the Washington Nationals (“It's going to happen” ... and against the White Sox.) and got booed for telling a Kevin Youkilis joke in Boston (Dems claim media bias: they say the audience was “Yooouk”-ing him). His annual NCAA bracket picks are widely publicized. There's clearly a genuine interest in sports, and a sort of superficial but informed quality to his commentary.
Obama emerges as an informed hotshot who gets sports, while Romney experienced American sporting life from the opposite end But Obama is also a calculating candidate, who understands how sports resonate particularly with white guys, by far his weakest demographic. His careful forays into sports talk radio, Twitter, the Olympics, NCAA basketball and every hot sports controversy are ways of displaying his American birth certificate. He's clearly trying to become more likable, and one-of-the-guys among voters he needs. This was done while he was painting Romney as an out-of-touch, country-club, rich guy. It worked and even when his job approval ratings hit rock bottom, he won the likeability contest hands down. His interest in sports may be genuine. But his political skills are finely tuned, and he knowingly and effectively has used sports to good effect.
Obama emerges as an informed hotshot who gets sports, while Romney experienced American sporting life from the opposite end, as an organizer and management figure, a general manager rather than a sweaty jock.
For Romney high school cross-country was the end of active sports. He admits as much, in a good-natured, goofy way.
"When I got the job to help organize the Olympic Winter Games in 2002,” Romney said, “I knew that it was a bit ironic for a guy with such little athletic ability as myself to be able to be responsible for the largest athletic event in the world." But Romney owes much of his public reputation to his leadership of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He was brought in early in 1999 as financial and management crises erupted. He engineered a genuine turnaround, raised a lot of private money, lobbied and received a large amount of federal money and ramped up security after 9/11. It was a success. He talks about it less than he should.
The question for sports fans is whether this qualifies as an interest in sports. Well, the fair answer is yes. We all extract from sports that which matters to us and apply it to the particulars of our lives and experiences. Romney is a finance/business/management type In an age of Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, “Moneyball” And GMs with their own celebrity. Romney took the skills a GM needs and made something good happen for the country, and for sports. It counts and the only surprise is that he doesn't talk about it more.
What gets more attention is his ownership with his wife, Ann, of a horse that made the Olympic team. Rafalca is a champion dressage horse. For those of you who missed Stephen Colbert's hilarious and long-running reportage, it's sort of a prancing horse ridden by someone in a tuxedo, who receives a tiara if victorious. The annual cost of keeping Rafalca is over $75k. Not your Joe Six Pack response to Obama's basketball enthusiasm. Ann Romney may be the Romney who knows the most about sports. Her interest in dressage is at least partially therapeutic, a weapon in her personal battle with multiple sclerosis. And she seems to understand the value of sports to kids and education, telling the Republican convention that the now widespread practice of charging kids to play high school sports was a dangerous burden for most families.
But Ann's not the candidate. There's real, unexploited political value in Romney's Salt Lake City success, which could have piggybacked nicely on his post-first-debate surge. It would have countered the plenteous non-sports gaffes, including his London Olympics mistake. All candidates make them. The problem is that Mitt just doesn't seem to know how to talk about or to America's sports fans. In fact, he's developed a verbal tic that sums up the whole thing.
Mitt doesn't talk about “sports.” He talks about “sport” in the manner of an English country gentleman. And not occasionally or recently. It's a lifetime habit. He describes Ted Williams as saying the “hardest thing to do in sport is hit a baseball.” He talks about a seven-footer he met: “I figured he had to be in sport, but he wasn't in sport." Sport? With all due respect, WTF? If part of running for president is connecting with people on a human basis and establishing you're in touch with the way they live, well, in America we say “Sports.”
This is not trivial, in political terms. It doesn't make Romney a bad person, or a bad president. It makes him a less-effective candidate for president, sports-wise. Obama had successfully painted him as an out-of-touch, rich guy, true or not, and any candidate has to be careful about this kind of thing. It puzzles sports fans and sets Romney apart from them. Obama made himself the aging basketball nut and shmoozy, bull session fan: let's have a beer. Romney made himself an aristocrat of the business of sports: let's have a martini (non-alcoholic). Both were choices and both have consequences.
The race has tightened and Obama will undoubtedly continue to use sports to connect with voters. Romney could help himself, in these final weeks of the race, by using his sports Olympic/GM/management experience to reassure voters nervous about the rightward tilt of the Republican Party. The country could benefit from forceful management and there are more swing votes out there than can be found in the ideological trenches.
So, sports fans, after three debates, who do we like in the final round? Romney is the successful General Manager, the organization guy, the owner with a record of well-run teams even if he has no interest in playing the game, and not a great deal if interest in talking x's and o's. Obama is the almost-good athlete, like many of us who think we were better than we were, who shares a genuine passion for sport(s) and for a relaxing bull session about the ups and downs of America's sports royalty.
Neither man is Teddy Roosevelt, thank God. We've evolved, or at least moved on from the days of glorious amateurs and sandlot baseball to become a community of international spectators and intermittent participants. Examining Obama and Romney from the perspective of sports fans yields the unsurprising conclusion that both have considerable credentials that reflect their individual interest and accomplishments. It's more than fair to reflect on those qualities as part of figuring out who to vote for.
Sports remain a window to the American soul; fandom and participation are valid measures of leadershipSports matter, to me, even today. The physical, moral and emotional effort, the consequences of winning and losing, the sheer artistry and skill remain compelling and important. But I'm not a fan of the business of sports, and the management side has more than its share of rich bullies. I find it harder and harder to peel back the money and baloney and find the values and spirit of competitive sports. My own preference for Obama is a reflection of ideas about what America should look like, and a set of preferences that are, to a small extent, the consequence of what I learned playing lacrosse and basketball in college. The 1968 Brandeis University lacrosse team taught me that market ideology -- every man for himself -- didn't yield a winning season. A genuine passion for those core values of sports appeals to me, and the hotshot seems to get it more than the GM. But that's just me. Both men should be respected for jumping into the public arena and competing. It's as hard to do as any 30-foot jump shot.
Sports remain a window to the American soul; fandom and participation are valid measures of leadership; thinking and talking about sports is a central fact of public life. These are good things. There are plenty of reasons to vote for Romney or Obama, depending on how you think about life and America. It doesn't hurt to throw into the mix a few insights into how our passion for sports illuminates the decision we will collectively make on Nov. 6. It actually helps.