Ever since Andrew Johnson welcomed the New York Mutuals to the White House in 1867, presidential politics has exploited professional sports. It’s a foolproof way for politicians to show voters they enjoy competition, fair play and are salt-of-the-turf Americans.
Sports signifies different things to different voters. Football (JFK) and baseball (George H.W. Bush) are good. Windsurfing (John Kerry) and hunting “varmints” (Mitt Romney)–not always so good. And no candidate should ever bowl in a necktie, unless he can seriously roll.
During the campaign Obama has appeared on sports radio, including a cameo last week on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. He earned cheers from co-host Mike Golic by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “I would have my attorney general investigate the possibility of instituting a college football playoff system through executive order. I’m tired of this nonsense at the end of every college football season.”
A month earlier, John McCain made his own ESPN appearance. He’s also known to work the crowds at NASCAR events. But no one in this election uses sports like Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. At times on the campaign trail, sports is her primary form of communication with voters outside of her narrow, Christian fundamentalist base. Communication is critical for Palin, since she mangles the English language so consistently that she’s become the subject of ridicule. Talking sports–whether as a mom on the sidelines of her kids’ hockey games or a as an outdoorswoman who loves to hunt and fish–gives her the opportunity to seem genuine, friendly and accessible.
Palin’s politics may be beyond the fringe, but her sporting interests are effortlessly mainstream. In this sense, she resembles the current occupant of the White House. George W. Bush built his public persona as the owner of the Texas Rangers. When asked for an example of a political mistake, he would speak with a smirk about trading Sammy Sosa. The press and the public let him get away with this blather and the country has been worse off because of it. Palin has the most extensive sports resumé for a politician since former Representative Steve Largent. But unlike Largent, an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver, Palin’s sporting bona fides are more style than substance.