Monday, November 9, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 3

The Tiger Factor
African American athletes have been successful as long as white Americans have been. But for decades they were seen as threatening. When Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, Jack London called for a "great white hope" to restore whites to their dominant position. Even Jesse Owens, after his triumph in Berlin in 1936, returned to the back of the bus and marginalization once home in America. It was not until after World War II that black athletes began to gain a measure of equality in the U.S. Jackie Robinson's successes paved the way for other competitors and, when America needed athletes to defeat the Russians during the Cold War, black athletes like Wilma Rudolph, draped in the flag, gained acceptance by helping save the day in Rome.

Even in these instances, however, black athletes remained primarily heroes for black America and they were still frequently under the authority of white managers and owners. Many who tried to jump from the playing field to the front office found the corridors of power closed to them. Others, like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Arthur Ashe (to name a few), who pushed for political change, were widely feared in white America--until they were too old or too sick to remain a threat.

Tiger Woods may be the first black (or, like Obama, part black) athlete to succeed at an elitist sport and to be broadly accepted as something of a pop culture icon. Americans of all colors follow his career, cheer for him, and play Tiger Woods Golf on their PlayStations and Xboxes. Without him in a tournament, TV audiences plummet. Tiger Woods is the best paid athlete in the world, and he dominates a sport that was reserved for white, upper-class men until only recently. Tiger entered the upper echelons of sport and in a very short time he became the first African American to win many of golf's major (and minor) tournaments. He garnered a following that cut across all races and social classes and became, in marketing terms, the most powerful athlete in the world. Tiger's unflappable (some might say dull) demeanor and reluctance to take sides in politically charged issues have made him imminently palatable.

Enter Barack Obama. Like Tiger Woods, he is of mixed race. Like Tiger he has been able to reach across racial and economic barriers and quickly enter and become an international icon and the most significant player within the corridors of power. During his campaign he largely avoided contentious topics and carefully negotiated the middle ground, remaining calm and determined with Tiger-esque focus. Americans may not have been willing to elect him without Tiger Woods, a "Cablinasian," having already prepared the way. Tiger's popularity made a black politician fractionally more acceptable in an election (the primary) that was won by a mere fraction.

Beijing and American Decline
At the same time as the Republican National Convention was taking place, Americans watched the Olympic games in China and saw their athletes slip to second place in the gold medal chase for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet block teams following the Barcelona Olympics. While bloggers complained about the age of Chinese gymnasts and human rights groups pushed for a boycott, sports fans saw America's hold on Olympic dominance slip away.

If America's difficulties in Iraq had fallen out of the spotlight and if its diplomatic failings in the Middle East were too abstract, the concrete results in Beijing made many Americans recognize that America's hegemonic hold on global politics was on the wane. Bush's detachment from political realities (he was smiling at the Opening Ceremonies as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia) implied that change at the top was necessary.

To further complicate matters for Republicans, media coverage around the games gave average American consumers a glimpse into the repressive practices of a country where so many of our products are made. Instead of serving as an international moral cleansing agent that would justify moving more American manufacturing to China, the Beijing Olympics instead raised consciousness of the political price we have been paying when we purchase $1 spatulas or $6 watches. This awareness, on some level, caused voters to look to the Obama-Biden ticket for a change in foreign and economic policy as well as a revalorization of American manufacturing.

Ultimately, while sports may have been only one factor among the many that led to Obama's victory, it was a determining one since sports served as a vector for racial, political, social, and economic issues that mattered deeply to voters. Where his opponents largely repeated sports cliches and depicted themselves as underdogs fighting to get back in the big game, Obama frequently spoke about his relationship with sports in original and nuanced ways, understanding the power sports held to shape both his own identity and public opinion. By associating himself with sports more effectively than his opponents, Obama came across as athletic and in control, as both a leader and a team player. His spontaneous three-pointer in front of cameras in Kuwait, like the election last November, hit nothing but net.


Lady Prodigy Basketball said...

Did it really change the election? Or did sports magnify the importance of race in politics?

Lady Prodigy Basketball

Corry Cropper said...

Both. I think the way Obama used sports in his campaign drew in voters. And since in many states the outcomes hinged on a minuscule majority...

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