Presidents should stay out of sports

Publish date:

Only Barack Obama and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie know exactly what the president said during their now infamous phone conversation in late December. But it's clear that Obama praised Lurie for giving Eagles quarterback Michael Vick a second chance. To which I say:

What was he thinking?

It's beyond obvious that Obama is not the first president to involve himself in sports, but, man, I wish he would be the last. It would be wonderful if 2011 went down as the year that these sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes inappropriate relationships between the White House and America's sports teams were discontinued.

But it probably won't happen. It's been going on for a long, long time, possibly since Teddy Roosevelt invited Ty Cobb to the White House. All the players the ol' Rough Rider could've chosen and he went with a racist reprobate who shouldn't have been allowed to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a group tour.

Those of my generation are familiar with Richard Nixon's fixation with the Washington Redskins of the early 1970s. He once famously sent coach George Allen a play, applying gentle First Fan pressure that it should be used, only to see it end in abject failure (a 13-yard loss) in a playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams. The play was a reverse, which sounds a little far-out for Dick, although he was, if you recall, known as Tricky Dick.

Speaking of failed plays, Obama has been particularly unlucky in the sports arena. He put his presidential weight behind: a) getting the 2016 Olympics to Chicago and b) the 2022 World Cup to the U.S., and failed both times. During a recent pickup game in a sport he really knows how to play, hoops, he got an elbow to the face.

To make the necessary disclaimer: This is not a political rant. I voted for Obama, feel that he's done a much better job than he's been given credit for and consider many of the right-wing attacks on him as excessive and purely politically motivated. When it was announced that Chicago's Olympic bid had failed, a gathering of the Americans for Prosperity, major Tea Party supporters, burst into applause, demonstrating that they're all for American prosperity unless it reflects positively on Obama.

But besides continuing his pickup basketball games -- I'm all for presidents staying fit, and I must admit that it's nice to have a First Hooper on Pennsylvania Avenue -- Obama, and those who follow him, should leave the sports world alone.

First of all, Obama's call to Lurie was simply a wrongheaded gesture. It's not like the Eagles' owner gave an orphan a home, a newspaper route and a shot at the American dream. He gave a chance to someone he hoped could win him some games, which is exactly what happened. Obama's call was a slap in the face to all those who find Vick's torturing of dogs an offense undeserving of redemption.

And why did Obama wait until December -- by which time Vick had flourished on the field -- to make his call? If it was truly about giving second chances, then Obama should've made the call last year when Lurie first went out on a limb to sign the quarterback. Now he comes across as a guy who was celebrating Vick's play, not his rehabilitation.

As with most of these presidential forays into sports, Obama's was politically clumsy. Why does he make a call about Michael Vick but ignores, say, Wes Welker's return from a bad knee injury? That comeback story doesn't deserve presidential mention but Vick's does? I'm not talking about the issue of making political hay in the New England states but, rather, the issue of fairness.

I'm even for doing away with these meaningless ceremonial visits that championship teams make to the White House. I say this with some trepidation, having personally witnessed one of the immortal moments in Rose Garden history, that being the Chicago Bulls' Craig Hodges greeting President George H.W. Bush in snow-white dashiki and a giving him a letter protesting his administration's treatment of the poor. But the only reason for it is to give the chief executive a minor political bump in the polls and get a couple of guys to climb into sports coats for the first time all season. Such visits are a monumental waste of an important person's time and another way that the president demonstrates political unfairness.

The First Fan invariably invites the mighty and powerful -- Super Bowl and World Series champs, NCAA kings and queens of major-college sports, etc. -- and invariably overlooks the little guys. Why doesn't the Division 3 fencing champion get an invite? Why don't the chess champions, or, for that matter, the spelling bee champions? Oh, wait, that latter group usually does get an invite, probably because the event is televised. In other words, some champions get the presidential summons, others do not.

Look, you might say, the call to Lurie took five minutes, the Rose Garden visits maybe 20. But most of these forays into sport do nothing so much as manifest misplaced priorities. While it might be overly obvious to observe that the president should have better things to do, it's worth nothing that the president does have better things to do. When I go to the polls ever four years, I'm voting for a chief executive, not some hometown yahoo to lead the cheers. That's what mayors do.