Monday, June 04, 2007

Can Sports Make a President? [J. Mark English]

I love sports, but politics are really my true passion. I've followed politics ever since I was a little kid because of the intense rivalry in a race for power. For my money, even the most thrilling sporting event doesn't hold a candle compared to an election night. Especially a presidential election night.

Think back to the 2000 presidential election. Not only did we not find out who would be the next leader of the free world on the actual election night, but it took over a month to finally determine who would be the next Commander in Chief. Imagine if that could be translated into a sporting event? It would be like a Super Bowl going into 18 sudden death over times. Or a baseball game venturing into possibly 50 innings. Except instead of a trophy on the line, and pride you have the weight of the free world. Human lives, jobs, wealth, worldly decision are at stake in a heated election. Can you ask for better competition with more at stake?

Is it any coincidence then that most of our presidents have aspired to be involved in athletics? Even if they are not gifted athletes they want to be involved in some sport that allows them to vent their stress into a healthy arena.

Teddy Roosevelt when he was President asked engineers to allow for the Potomac river to flow right up to the White House, so that every morning he could go for long swims before returning to work.

President Ulysses S. Grant was a champion horseback rider. After his presidency, he went across the world on a two year tour, showing of his skills on a horse.

President Dwight Eisenhower guided us through the beginnings of the Cold War. He managed his stress through golf. He had a handicap of only 14-18, and it is rumored that he only broke 80 three times in his life.

Recently we all learned what kind of athlete President Gerald R. Ford was in his day. He could have been a professional football player, but turned down certain NFL contracts in order to pursue a career in law.

Who can forget when President George W. Bush, himself a former MLB owner of the Texas Rangers, threw a perfect strike at Yankee Stadium a month after September 11, 2001, during the World Series while the New York crowded chanted "USA, USA, USA."

I realize that I may be showing a bias here since every president I mentioned was or is a republican. But this holds true for democrats as well. President Clinton used his daily jog as way to garner support for bills while he was in the White House. President Kennedy was an avid sailor, and would use his vacations to play everything from golf to football.

President Franklin Roosevelt fought against his polio stricken body by going down to Georgia, using intense physical therapy to rise out of his wheel chair.

It is clear just how great the connection is between our presidents and athletics.

Is it any wonder then that as our nation begins its search for new leadership in the year 2008, sports might be a good barometer to judge the character of a leader? Just recently in the New York Times, there was a great article about how basketball can tell us an awful lot about presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama:

Last Christmas, Senator Barack Obama flew to Hawaii to contemplate a presidential bid in the peace of his childhood home. But there, on a humid playground near Waikiki Beach, he found himself being roughed up by some of his best friends. It was the third and final game of the group’s annual three-on-three basketball showdown, and with the score nearly tied, things were getting dirty.

“Every time he tried to score, I fouled him,” Martin Nesbitt recalled. “I grabbed him, I’d hit his arm, I’d hold him.” Michael Ramos, another participant, explained, “No blood, no foul.”

Mr. Obama, like everyone else on the court, was laughing. And with a head fake, a bit of contact and a jumper that seemed out of his range, Mr. Obama sank the shot that won the game.

From John F. Kennedy’s sailing to Bill Clinton’s golf mulligans to John Kerry’s windsurfing, sports has been used, correctly or incorrectly, as a personality decoder for presidents and presidential aspirants. So, armchair psychologists and fans of athletic metaphors, take note: Barack Obama is a wily player of pickup basketball, the version of the game with unspoken rules, no referee and lots of elbows. He has been playing since adolescence, on cracked-asphalt playgrounds and at exclusive health clubs, developing a quick offensive style, a left-handed jump shot and relationships that have extended into the political arena...

...It is a theme that runs throughout Mr. Obama’s basketball career: a desire to be perceived as a regular guy despite great advantage and success. As a teenager, he slipped away from his tony school to university courts populated by “gym rats and has-beens” who taught him “that respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was,” Mr. Obama wrote...

...Now, for exercise, Mr. Obama pounds treadmills at hotel gyms. He played a bit last year, with American troops on military bases in Kuwait and Djibouti, and again at Christmas. His staff members laugh when asked if the senator has had any playing time since coming to Washington or hitting the campaign trail. (“I dream of playing basketball,” Mr. Obama said in a television interview on Tuesday.) Before the first Democratic debate in South Carolina, Mr. Robinson reserved a court and a slot on Mr. Obama’s schedule, hoping the candidate could blow off some steam before the big night. It did not happen.

The solution, Mr. Obama’s friends say, is for him to win the presidency, so they can all play together at the White House.

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