Commentary
2:05 pm
Fri December 9, 2011

A Fan's Notes: Sports and Sportsmanship

It’s long since been commonplace for presidents to flaunt their inner sports fan…to joke about their golf game, invite championship teams to the Rose Garden, or toss out that ceremonial first pitch.

But perhaps, says "A Fan's Notes" commentator Victor Wishna, politicians - including the President and Congress - should pay more attention to sportsmanship.

If you have one of those jobs that requires a lot of travel—let’s say, President of the United States—well, one little perk is the chance to see people you might not otherwise get to visit. You just have to drop them a line to let them know you’re in town.

This week, when President Obama came to Kansas on business, he made sure an email went out to one local in particular: KU basketball coach Bill Self. From all reports, their official five-minute meet-and-greet went well. According to Self, they mostly “talked hoops.” "Great day. Just met President Obama,” he wrote on Twitter. “So down-to-earth, loves ball.” Perhaps they reminisced about 2008, the year both men won it all; they’ve each dropped in the polls a bit since.

Afterwards, they headed off to their respective gyms—Coach Self back to Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks were readying for that night’s game. President Obama to Osawatomie High School where, standing beneath a raised basketball goal, he would lay out his vision for the economy, in language any coach could appreciate: “a fair shot”…“the same rules”…“an even playing field.”

Obama, of course, was channeling the “square deal” populism of Teddy Roosevelt, the last president to appear in Osawatomie, a century ago, and incidentally the first, according to historians, to make sports an integral part of the presidency. “TR” was the original “Sportsman-in-Chief,” defined by his vigorous love of hunting, hiking, boxing, wrestling, and even…tennis; he built the first court on the White House lawn.

It’s long since been commonplace for presidents to flaunt their inner sports fan…to joke about their golf game, invite championship teams to the Rose Garden, or toss out that ceremonial first pitch.

When Obama came into office, he was heralded as the ultimate First Fan and First Athlete. A former high-school shooting guard, he scrimmaged with the North Carolina Tar Heels as a candidate and later installed the White House’s first basketball court. In press conferences, he’s advocated a college-football playoff to replace the computerized BCS system. I imagine Bill Self—whose alma mater Oklahoma State was just shut out of the national title game—likely agrees.

And why is sports one thing that so many Americans can agree on, regardless of who they root for, and why do politicians so eagerly revel in the nonpartisan glory it brings? Is it their shared love of competition?

Yes, as with politics, the immediate goal in sports is victory. But the essence is fair play. Walter Winchell once wrote, “The only thing Americans love more than sports…is sportsmanship.” We don’t just root for the teams that win. Remember? It’s supposed to be “how you play the game.”

There’s a reason that government is drawing unprecedented boos from all major fan bases: Republicans, Democrats, Independents. Congress currently has a nine percent approval rating—probably less support than the Oakland Raiders will have at Arrowhead in two weeks.

So, for all the cover presidents and politicians have drawn from the populism of sports, it’d be nice to see them embrace the ideals of sportsmanship, too. It might help placate the 89% of Americans who say they’re fed up with political rancor. And it never hurts to have more fans, no matter how you’re doing in the polls.

Any coach could tell you that.

The views of Victor Wishna are not necessarily those of KCUR, Kansas City Public Media, or its employees.

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