Yesterday was former President Barack Obama’s final day in office and — regardless of where you fall in the political spectrum — a sad day for sports fans across the country.
Of the few presidencies I’ve lived through, no commander in chief has been as involved and as knowledgeable about the world of sports as Obama. Devout sports fans such as myself can tell almost immediately whether people in power — politicians, CEOs and celebrities — actually care about sports or are just trying to flub their way through a speech they didn’t write to cozy up to famous athletes (like San Francisco mayor Ed Lee calling Stephen Curry “Steve Curry” in 2013 when presenting the Golden State Warriors star a key to the city. That was cringe worthy).
Through his eight years in office, I’ve watched Obama welcome championship teams and sports icons to the White House with casual jokes, references and remarks that make him feel more like a friend talking sports with you in a bar than the President of the United States making a speech. From making fun of Deflategate to calling Michael Jordan “more than just an internet meme,” Obama certainly has the sports jokes down.
I’ve watched him fill out his bracket before the NCAA Tournament each year, explaining his picks and breaking down teams on ESPN, making more sense than some analysts the network somehow still employs (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith). In an interview with Grantland in 2012, Obama said he watches SportsCenter during his morning workouts, sneaks a peek at a ball game from time to time while reading briefings and even pays for NBA League Pass himself. GQ published an oral history this week describing Obama’s love of pickup basketball. He routinely played during both of his campaigns, including the day of both elections.
It’s easy to say that all of this is pointless. Sports is unimportant in comparison to running a country. But can’t we all say that about our lives? Just because your team won a big game doesn’t mean you’ll get a promotion at work the next day. In this sense, Obama connected with us common folk who watch sports and use it as an escape from the stress of everyday life.
There’s also something bigger about sports that Obama touched on beautifully on Monday, when he welcomed the World Series champions Chicago Cubs to the East Room for his final White House ceremony.
“It is worth remembering — because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’ — throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” he said. “Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game, and it is celebration, but there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”
Robinson, of course, broke the color code in professional baseball, paving the way for the diverse world of sports we have now. In fact, black athletes make up the majority of players in both the NBA and NFL today, while minorities compose roughly 40 percent of MLB players. Sports are proof that no matter the political climate in the outside world, everyone on the playing field is one and the same, separated by their talents and abilities rather than race. It’s more than just the players: Anyone can be a sports fan. Go to a sporting event and you’ll see people across all walks of life cheering in unison for their team.
“When you see this group of folks of different shades and different backgrounds coming from different communities and neighborhoods all across the country and then playing as one team and playing the right way and celebrating each other and being joyous in that, that tells us a little something about what America is and what America can be,” said Obama, describing Cubs players after their World Series victory.
That is the true value of sports, which are so much more than simple objectives like putting a ball in a basket or running into an end zone. Obama understood that while Robinson was just a baseball player, he made it acceptable for people of color to participate in a league reserved for whites. That paved the way — more than half a century later — for a black man to lead the country, a position previously held solely by white men.
And in the end, Obama was just as much a Chicago sports fan as he was the commander in chief. He cared about his March Madness brackets as much as the guy working a nine-to-five desk job, snuck in baseball games as much as the college student “multitasking” while studying, watched SportsCenter at the gym just like you or I would and shot hoops with his friends like any other dude.
Say what you want about his politics or the legacy he leaves behind. But I’ll simply say this, from one sports fan to another: Thanks, Obama, for reminding us of what sports are all about and how they can make a tremendous impact on progress in society.
Eric He is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs on Fridays.