Friday, October 30, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 1

To mark the one year anniversary of Obama's election, here is my sports-centric take on last year's campaign (part 1 of 3):

Not since ancient Greece have sports played such a significant role in public life as they do today in the United States. In addition to being among the top ten American industrial forces, sports establish a common cultural language for most American men, and a growing number of American women. In a country divided by race, religion, and socio-economics, sports stand as a unifying lingua franca, creating a milieu where there truly are no blue states, no red states, but one country united in their love of sport. It is not surprising, then, that politicians tap into this sports ethos to improve their image and connect with voters.

Obama's Sports Schizophrenia
Given the tie between professional basketball and inner-city black culture, a well-established (if erroneous) stereotype links the NBA--indeed basketball at any level (when played by black men)--with gang violence. A black presidential candidate who also plays basketball triggers many of America's racial levers. It would be safer for a black candidate, trying to appeal to a broad middle-class electorate, to play football, baseball, tiddlywinks--even that nefarious socialist sport soccer—than to express an affinity for basketball. But somehow Obama rose above this. How?

In a speech delivered on Fathers' day in 2008, Obama told a Chicago audience, "We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled--doubled--since we were children." And on several occasions early in his campaign, Obama was quoted as saying, "I don't want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college." Obama's claim, apparently false, was challenged by several reputable sources, but he repeated the claim anyway. Accusing Obama of lying--which many right-wing bloggers did, claiming he was perpetuating a myth of victimization--however, misses the point.

By repeating cliches that call into question inner-city black culture, Obama set himself apart from that world, and convinced voters that to him basketball was a genteel, Hoosier-esque way to remain fit. Careful to not appear too aggressive, whenever he is filmed playing basketball Obama sports a somewhat frumpy pair of sweats and resembles the quintessential suburbanite trying out for his high-school team.

In an interview with Bryant Gumbel, Obama acknowledged being a fan of both Walt Frazier and Dr. J, players who have proven to be successful spokesmen in the corporate world and who have broad appeal in the black and white communities. In addition, these athletes are safe: their exploits are confined to the past, sealed away in a nostalgic vault where they cannot ruffle any racial feathers today. Like his childhood role models, who moved from the black world of basketball to the white world of corporate sponsorship, Obama transitioned from the black basketball obsessed kid to a Harvard educated presidential candidate electable in mainstream America. It is not surprising that Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, told Gumbel that Obama "started out as a black player who played black and is now more of a black player who plays white."

And while he is known for basketball, football--the sport of JFK, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Regan--is the sport Obama chose to bookend his campaign. Just before declaring his intention to run for president, he made a now famous appearance on Monday Night Football and announced, "I am ready ... for the Bears to go all the way, baby!" And when he accepted his party's nomination he did so at Invesco field, a football stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

At the end of his campaign, just one week before the election, the Obama campaign aired a half-hour long commercial that both laid out Obama's primary political objectives and presented viewers with an idyllic image of the candidate and his running-mate. At one point Obama asserts, "When manufacturing spread to towns across America it brought jobs and a way of life. Working-class families could buy their first home and a piece of the American dream." The words, "a piece of the American dream," are juxtaposed with a scene, filmed in black and white, of children playing baseball in a quiet neighborhood. Baseball is equated directly with America. And one of the commercial's primary messages was that Obama and Biden are good mainstream Americans. This was conveyed, unsurprisingly, by showing pictures of the two men as children: a two or three year-old Obama swinging a baseball bat and a slightly older Biden in his little league baseball uniform.

But Obama also sought to connect to middle-America by once again employing the currency of football, the American sport that is today what baseball once was. While describing the plight of the Johnston family, a family struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising costs of health care, gas, and groceries, filmmakers were careful to include scenes of the family's son playing football and being cheered on by his mother on the sidelines. A close-up of the ball being snapped and images of children running a play convey the message that this is a good salt-of-the-earth family and that, by extension, Obama is a salt-of-the-earth candidate who understands the struggles of the middle class. More powerful than the words used in the voice-over, the images of football connected Obama's message to America's core family values and established Obama as someone who could relate to problems of the white working class.

By associating his message with football, Barack Obama successfully cast himself as a populist and staved off the persistent "elitist" label that his poor performance when bowling in Western Pennsylvania had reinforced. Football has even served him since the election. In his first post-election interview, Obama repeated his challenge of the current arrangement of the Bowl Championship Series (the system that Joe Biden once called "unamerican"). Appearing on "60 Minutes," Obama said he would "throw [his] weight around" in order to push college football towards a playoff system. Of course, even a playoff would not guarantee a true national champion, but Obama is not really interested in reforming college football. By attacking the BCS, Obama is extending his popularity in the college-football-crazed-South, one of the few regions where he performed poorly on election night.

More to come...


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