For those who haven’t seen it yet, Kyle Green and Doug Hartmann have an excellent white paper on The Society Pages about politics and sports. They discuss several of the ways in which politicians use sports to connect with the public and how sports can become venue for political activity.
In the article, they point out that the press has widely referred to President Obama as the “Sports President.” While Obama, no doubt, enjoys watching sports, filling out March Madness brackets, and playing pick-up hoops, he is probably also aware that cultivating this image may reap political rewards by enhancing his likability or relatability with the public. This may explain why he was willing recently to sit down with The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, for an extended interview about all things athletic.
Kyle and Doug rightly critique the assertion that Obama is the first “Sports President.” Appreciation of sports and athleticism have long been requisite interests for American Presidents. As they write, “The celebration of Obama seems to be a case of collective amnesia … if we peruse the historical archives, it seems almost every president was hailed [as the Sports President].”
Here’s where I disagree a bit. Though he’s certainly not the first “Sports President,” I think Obama might be the first “ESPN President” or “SportsCenter President.” Of course, ESPN existed under Clinton and W. Bush. But Obama hit his 20s just as ESPN was founded. So, he was the core age demographic for the network in its first two decades of its existence. To the extent that ESPN changed sports culture, it seems like Obama is the first President to be a part of that new culture.
Now, what is the sports culture created by ESPN? I’m not sure I can pinpoint it and would love to know about research that has tackled that question. It seems to me that among the biggest changes wrought by ESPN is that fans can easily be far more knowledgeable about a whole range of sports. No longer a Mets fan or even a baseball fan, many people today (especially men) can be “sports guys,” interested in and knowledgeable about more players, more teams, and more sporting activities. ESPN has also been a leading proponent of more complex statistical analysis of sports and stats-based gaming like March Madness and online Fantasy sports leagues. Finally, ESPN also seems to have bridged the gap between sports and other pop culture. With their trademark snarky asides and references to movies and TV, they have changed the fabric of sports culture, making it more playful and, perhaps, more widely accessible.
Update: In a funny coincidence, Doug Hartmann and I posted on the same set of issues within a seconds of each other. Read his take here!