American presidents preside over the religion of sport in America. Richard Nixon suggested plays to his favorite teams. Dwight Eisenhower moved golf from a rich plaything to a mainstream activity. The Bush clan played football, baseball and sailed as well as owning a baseball team. President Obama follows in a long established tradition as the resident high priest presiding over the liturgy of American sport; the President as First Fan.
President Obama has embraced this mantle with relish. He fills out a mean NCAA bracket that he can actually explain. He had to pass a basketball test to woo Michelle and plays for keeps picking up12 stitches in a simple “pickup” game! Some Presidents may collapse while jogging or get dunked by killer rabbits, but Obama sheds blood for sport. He weighed in on the discussion over a national college football championship. Not since President Nixon has a President enjoyed and embraced this role so much.
Now Obama has added homilies, private and personal, to the celebrant of sport position. On vacation he called Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Jeffrey Lurie to congratulate Lurie for his alternative energy plans for the Eagle’s new stadium. During the conversation he praised Lurie for giving Michael Vick, convicted felon and dogfighter, a second chance. Amid considerable controversy Vick, himself, unveiled a storybook season of skill and maturity. At the same time he has relentlessly crossed the country speaking out on his own moral culpability and warning against animal abuse. Vick has demonstrated by his behavior and unrehearsed words a consistent remorse.
The liturgy of sport provides rituals and narratives that many Americans use to make sense of life. The redemption story is etched into the American psyche as a foundational narrative; one that we tell ourselves again and again both to explain and redeem our own lives but also explain our success as a culture. This culture permits and encourages second, third and fourth chances in the economy and life. Media consultant orchestrated apologies and promises to do better may toughen us to some of this, but the possibility of accepting responsibility, learning from moral failure and redeeming one’s life lies at the core of American identity.
Obama’s comments upon Vick were very specific and need to be addressed as such. He condemned Vick’s callous and inhumane treatment of animals as well as Vick’s pride and belief he was above the law. But he congratulated Lurie on giving someone who had served his time a second chance. Lurie emphasized how passionate Obama was about giving people who paid their dues a second chance.
As First Fan Obama’s homily invoked second chance, redemption and a reviled and redeemed sport figure as a model. Of course his “private” conversation went viral. Animal rights activists clamored on both sides of the issues. One warned Obama there are more dog lovers than football lovers. Interestingly one activist made Obama's point by arguing that Vick would not have been given a second chance if he could not throw a football. That is Obama's point.
Vick illustrates writ large that second chances require people willing to risk giving them, and this seldom happens to people who have served time. This reluctance perpetuates the cycle of crime-prison-recidivism. Many questioned the appropriateness of his comments. Others invoked the heinous nature of Vick’s treatment of animals hinting strongly nothing could redeem such behavior. Fox News chimed in predictably through mouthpiece Tucker Carlson who asserted that Vick should have been executed, thus making dog cruelty a capital crime.
Obama’s point remains powerful and on point. If Americans believe in the possibility of a redeemed life; if Americans believe that going to prison pays back to society the debt owed and morally balances the life; If Americans believe that people who make moral mistakes but own up and pay for them and prove this by behavior over time are redeemed, then Obama’s conjuring up Vick’s example is right on.
Obama’s invocation of Vick’s example not only to calls to mind our belief in redemption but reminds us that that redemption requires people who will grant those second chances.