On the eve of the 2008 presidential election, during ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, which averages nearly 10 million viewers a week, two separate interviews with candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were beamed into homes across the country.
In each conversation McCain and Obama spoke of their connection to the sports world and rattled off ideas to improve it. “I was a mediocre junior varsity linebacker and so I have the greatest respect and admiration for those who display these incredible skills on the football field,” said McCain, before speaking out for more regulations against performance enhancing drugs.
Obama, meanwhile, lamented the state of his hometown—and injury riddled—Chicago Bears before saying he’d like to see a playoff system implemented in college football, which, at that time, did not yet exist.
The interviews were light-hearted, mostly softball questions lobbed up for easy answers, but both candidates used the platform to frame their connection to sport, and in turn absorb the connotations often associated with it—nobility and nationalism, herculean individual effort and personal sacrifice for team success, an apt metaphor for the prospective leader of any nation.
Eight hours after the interviews aired, the polls opened in the Eastern states. Then, in 2012, Obama returned to Monday Night Football, this time flanked by Mitt Romney and once again, on the eve of the election, the conversation turned to sports.
Teddy Roosevelt, an avid hunter and perhaps America’s most rugged president, was known to orchestrate impromptu boxing and wrestling matches in the White House. That ended when, at 50 years old, an anonymous sparring partner landed a strike to Roosevelt that detached the retina in his left eye. This sort of macho posturing is one of the many traits shared between athletics and politics.
Each world is performative in nature, wrung out as a source of patriotism, with teams competing against each other, whether it’s the Yankees and Red Sox, or Democrats and Republicans. Their bases are formed of devoted, loyal supporters, and athletes, like politicians, are constantly subjected to analysis and critique. They also have an ability to effect change through the culture of stardom that surrounds them.
William Taft, in 1910, was the first president to throw the opening pitch at a baseball game. Now, with the practice dating back more than 100 years, the pitches draw comparisons, a physical act to chart the perceived masculinity of a former president. Just this week a GIF juxtaposing Obama and George Bush’s pitches reached the top of Reddit.
Bush, notably, was also the co-owner of the Texas Rangers before he was president, and, in his younger days, the head cheerleader at his high school. His father, meanwhile, was the captain of his high school's baseball and soccer teams and the first baseman for Yale’s varsity team. Keeping in baseball, Bush junior was also on the wrong end of an oft-told joke during his political career: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."
And there’s the shared connection to pop culture. Ronald Reagan, an actor who also played college football, had a seminal role in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American, where he played the role of George Gipp, a halfback at Notre Dame. When his character tells his teammates to “win just one for the Gipper,” he unknowingly spoke the rallying cry his supporters would use during his bid for presidency.
The list goes on, with examples to be found for nearly every president. Arguably the most accomplished president, athletically, was Gerald Ford, who was an all-state athlete in high school football and played center and linebacker for the University of Michigan, capturing consecutive national titles in two undefeated seasons in 1932 and ’33.
Despite Ford's accomplishments in sports, Obama has become known as the “sports president,” which has more to do with the era of his presidency, and his sport of choice, than any glaring feats of athleticism. Whether he’s filling out an NCAA bracket on national television or playing pick-up basketball with NBA athletes, the details are shared over social and mainstream media, and absorbed by a fan base, in basketball, that is younger and more engaged online than others.
But as the previous examples have shown and time will surely demonstrate, Obama is not the first president to be interested in sports—and he won't be the last. Future championship teams will continue the tradition of visiting the White House and whoever they shake hands with will once again benefit from a shared moment in pop culture and relevancy that, however briefly, reaches beyond politics and into entertainment.
By appearing at games, or offering commentary on past matches, presidents are taking part in a shared experience with fellow Americans. Their presence at sporting events is a reminder of this common ground, of normality. It’s a place where, beyond politics, an emotional connection can be made.
If, for example, Obama makes a joke at the expense of a team you cheer for, it’s more endearing than anything else because he’s following in line with traditional fandom. In that moment the boundary of “president” fades, and Obama appears as a fan, free of any other connotation.
That relatability, especially in politics, is essential. Politicians will often pull on sports metaphors for this purpose, but, just as anything else, that can backfire. Last year Obama was criticized for saying his policies in Syria and Ukraine were meant to “avoid errors,” a reference to baseball.
“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
This drew the ire of those who disagreed with his baseball phraseology.
“A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody,” Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times. “It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.” Perhaps Obama should have referenced a grand slam.
There is some posturing to all of this, of course; it’s authenticity drummed up to normalize politicians. They are associating themselves with something fun and current and that gives them extra points for likability. Sports serve as a PR tool, to that end, which is not to diminish the politicians that earnestly take interest in athletics, but to take it for what it often is: a politician campaigning.
Hillary Clinton, who formally announced her presidential candidacy on Sunday, knows this as well as anyone. In 2012, alongside ESPN president John Skipper, Clinton introduced the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. It’s purpose to connect international and American women with sustainable sports opportunities.”
"Sports helped me to learn how to be part of a team,” Clinton said. “It also helped me learn how to lose. You can’t win every time you go out, and you have to figure out what you’re made of after you do lose and whether you’re ready to get up and keep going."
Here, Clinton was able to use a familiar trope of sport to her benefit, of getting knocked down and getting back up again, a common refrain and a universally known feeling, that resonates with both sports fans and non-fans alike.
There is the health side to all of this too. Sports are, after all, a form of exercise, and being involved with them gives off the impression of someone who is healthy, both in body and mind. Physical attractiveness plays a role in both worlds, probably more so than we’d care to admit, but for politicians, in particular, appearance matters.
During the 2008 presidential debate, Obama was self-assured, his hands gesturing emphatically as his voice boomed forward. In opposition, McCain seemed tired, disinterested, even frail. Obama appeared ready to lead and strong enough to do it, while questions about McCain’s health and age were included in the resulting coverage. This was not to his benefit.
A 2011 study in Political Psychology found voters typically view attractive candidates more favorably, though some voters “correct” for the bias of physical appearance. In most circumstances however, attractive candidates were viewed in a more positive light.
The size of the politician also plays a role in voting. A study published last year in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, found that the heft of the politician can sway voters. Using data from 49 senate elections in 2008 and 77 elections in 2012, the researchers found a voting bias against heavier candidates. While obese candidates were largely absent from the data pool, the results showed that thinner counterparts receive a larger percentage of the vote share, and the larger the size difference between the candidates, the larger the vote share discrepancy.
At the rate that images are now disseminated, the politics of appearance matter. By using sports, not only as a campaign tool but as a celebrated cultural practice, politicians come across as active and healthy and engaged with the average citizen, ulterior motives aside. As the next election approaches, more stories of sports and politics will collide, the presidential race itself taking the shape of an athletic spectacle—the horse race—which, all things considered, is fitting. As Richard Nixon once said, “I don’t know anything that builds the will to win better than competitive sports.”
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.