The Constitution separates Church and State. The Constitution does not separate sport and state. Last week President Obama met with the Duke men’s national championship basketball team. Two weeks ago 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. At the start of the NCAA basketball tournaments Obama proudly presented his own brackets.
This is a President who plays basketball to relax; he fills out NCAA 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. 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 Fan in Chief 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 fan in chief 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. 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, sort of, 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. In a way rooting for a team gives credibility to the rest of the sports presiding.
With President’s Carter or 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 of a real time 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 Superbowl victors and World Series winners. Part of it is pure self-interested politics. The President partakes in the glimpse of 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.
Self interested politics and political leadership as embodying and celebrating values and community fuse in these ritual and ceremonial actions.
Americans like athletes, a little more ambivalent about jocks, but to be athletic provides a form of legitimacy—it suggests values of discipline, hard work, health, decision making under pressure—all attributes quite reasonable for a leader. Being a fan suggests genuineness and community grounding.
This 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 Democrats, exploit the hidden coding of “effete” meaning weak and indecisive. Many politicians ends up as rootless and feel like carpet baggers. Someone like Richard Nixon loved sports, but had not home after abandoning California so he compensated by becoming a passionate Washington Senators/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.
Republicans more than Democrats exploit a hidden language in sport. If someone is not athletic, they can be cornered as “effete” weak, indecisive, not connected to the rest of us. Senator John Kerry, distant, aloof, a war hero, but not just another guy and while athletic, not one who shows it was fodder for such a subliminal attack. Michael Dukakis was another effete democrat with no sports cred. 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. 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 Clinton 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 because a nonfan 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.
The last thing about being Fan in Chief; the President can model how a fan should behave. He can admire the sport; appreciate the skill and be a student of it and even pick and root for teams. But he be gracious in defeat and honorable 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