Friday, August 3, 2012

First Fan: The Presidency, Obama & Politics meets Sports

The Presidential election is heating up, and President Obama is burnishing his credentials as First Fan. He has called Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the American gymnastics team and complimented them on winning gold medals and representing America in the Olympics. He tweets well wishes and congratulations daily to American athletes. As Phelps said, the calls were "pretty cool." Last month he thanked Boston for trading the wonderful Kevin Youklis to his beloved Chicago White Sox. Of course the Romney campaign attacked him for this, but it's not clear Mitt Romney could root for a sports team even if he tried, except for maybe his wife's horse dancing, sorry, I mean dressage. But a campaign and Olympic medals provide a good nexus to remember why whoever is President becomes de facto First Fan which is an important constitutional position. 

The Constitution separates Church and State. The Constitution does not separate sport and state. Since sport is one of America's civil religions, the President must assume a strong role as First Fan to preside over the liturgy of American sport.

William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch in 1910 of the baseball season and started an American tradition of President as First-Fan. He loved sports, broke tradition and set a strong precedent of connecting sport and the Presidency. Taft aligned himself and the Presidency with baseball and sanctioned the sport as America's past-time.

Long before Taft threw out the first ball of the season, Ulysses Grant had met with the very first professional team the Cincinnati Red Legs and Theodore Roosevelt had met with the Yankees who urged him to run again.  Ronald Reagan was a huge sports fan and began the modern era tradition of the  First Fan regularly inviting World Series winners to the White House. Later Reagan invited the  NBA winners. President Richard Nixon worshipped sports, played football in college and got so wrapped up in sports that he even called in a play to coach George Allen of the Washington Redskins during the Super Bowl.

Obama fits  naturally into a long line of President as First Fan. Some presidents made no sense as First-Fan, and the persona never fit like Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson, but most American Presidents loved sports and enjoyed the connection. In a typical two week period two years ago President Obama played host to  the Duke men’s national championship basketball team. Later he met with the Connecticut women’s national basketball team. That afternoon he met with the US national soccer team and urged them on to victory

President Obama plays basketball to relax; he fills out NCAA basketball brackets in full and can explain on national TV why he picked which team; he can actually get the ball over the plate when he throws out the first pitch for the Nationals or the All Star game. When he wooed Michelle, Michelle's family tested his character in a basketball game. He models how to root for his home team but still respect the sport and other teams.

Many Americans relate to athletic teams as obsessively and passionately as to a religion, and the Presidency has evolved into First-Fan who presides over mixed religious, I mean sports, affiliations. The President tries to embody the spirit of sport and competition and excellence and community that freights American sport. He sanctifies the activity by going out to the games and ritually throwing out the first pitch. He sanctifies the winners and blesses Olympic or World Cup soldiers heading off to war.

The First Fan walks a tight rope. How do you root for your own team—Obama passionately supports the Chicago White Sox, wearing a grungy White Sox hat. (yet everything becomes politics and his detractors claim he really does not support them enough!) He threw out the pitch at the All Star Game wearing a White Sox jacket. When he threw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals game he wore a White Sox hat with the Nationals' jacket.  GW Bush rooted for the team he once owned, the Texas Rangers, but still preside over all the sport. In my state of Washington, when the governor attends a Washington/Washington State game, she wears a scarf half knitted in UW colors and half in WSU colors. 

With Presidents Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson, who could care a fig about competitive sports, it never feels quite real, kind of like Michael Dukakis pretending he knew something about the military. So the tight rope gives more than you might think. But being a real fan and suffering the pangs of loss and the joys of victory reveals a humanity and a willingness to be genuine when every incentive in politics is to not be genuine. Being a fan roots a President in a real local community and gives them a way to link with the rest of us.

Presidents meet with Olympic teams off to honor the country. They call Super Bowl victors and World Series winners. Part of it is pure self-interested politics. The President partakes in the reflected glory and status of the winners. But for the Presidents who care, they honor and acknowledge the excellence, the winners in competition. These Presidents know how sports competition embodies the American dream and ideal—hard work, skill, teamwork lead to excel and win. More interestingly each winning team, even the Yankees, has gone through the crucible of failure. Meeting with a team respects overcoming adversity to achieve. 

Our fetish for sports and athletics as a form of legitimacy and community makes it hard for some politicians. This hurts several classes of candidates. Republicans, more than Democrates, exploit the hidden coding of “effete” meaning weak and indecisive. They gravitate towards the tough sports like football,  Many politicians ends up as rootless and feel like carpet baggers. Someone like Richard Nixon loved sports, but had not been home in California for years. He  compensated by becoming a passionate Washington Red Skins fan. Others like Bobby Kennedy in NY or Hillary Clinton in NY simply have no real credibility in sports and lose the ability to use being a fan as proof of their local roots.

We give a pass to old guys like McCain and Reagan, but everyone knew Reagan was a fan and athletic, after all he chopped wood and played the Gipper in Knute Rockne. Right now I worry about the real costs to women. In one generation it won’t matter, but right now it strains a lot of imagination as Hillary Cinton demonstrated when she tried to be a Yankee fan.

In some ways better to be like LBJ and simply not care rather than feign interest. A non-fan trying to be a fan oozes insincerity, and being a fan is one of the few sincere things a politician can communicate. Especially as a politician aspires to higher office, being a fan carries costs because fans of other teams can hold it against him or her, but you stay loyal to your teams.

 It’s a lot like religion in American politics—a leader can be true to his or her own religion, but still preside over and respect the spiritual aspirations of all Americans. Mitt Romney is probably better off just staying away from the First Fan thing altogether during the race and let Obama make possible blunders with comments about Red Sox trades. On the other hand President Obama used his position as First-Fan to condemn the obsession with sports that could lead Penn State to hide child abuse to protect its football teams. At the risk of alienating Pennsylvania votes he reminded us all "But some things are just more important than sports. Making sure our kids are safe is more important than sports." 

The last thing about being First Fan: the President can model fan ethics. He can admire the sport; appreciate the skill and be a student of the game. He can  pick and root for teams. But he can demonstrate graciousness in defeat and honor in victory. He honors the sport and the success of committed and dedicated men and women. He honors them as athletes competitors and representing ideals that matter to Americans