First Fan

We all know he can hoop. This is about the other things in sport he needs to take into account. Getty Images

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Barack Obama has a tough act to follow (we're talking about sports here), succeeding a man who once owned a major league baseball team, bench-pressed 185 pounds and ran a marathon. But the skinny newcomer should hold his own. Before the election, candidate Obama championed a college football playoff and lobbied to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago, his hometown. His passion for pickup hoops and his clutch three-point shooting during a summer visit with troops in the Middle East are, in their own way, Jordanesque. And now that he's moved into the White House, President Obama is looking for a room with a ceiling high enough to hold a basketball court. Our 44th president is a player and a fan, the kind who will surely use his free-at-last BlackBerry to peep White Sox scores on Air Force One. He has plenty of advisers telling him how to fix the economy. What he needs is someone to help him handle the more sporting aspects of his new gig. That's where we come in.


Presidents fear the PR gaffe, especially when committed in the service of a trivial event. That makes almost every sports/White House confluence a potential minefield. So, Mr. President, learn your lessons from past high-office hiccups:

The low point of the Obama campaign? His score of 37 over seven frames at an Altoona, Pa., alley last March that drew charges of elitism. He should have known better. George H.W. Bush once slipped and fell in a bowling alley during the 1984 campaign. And it was Richard Nixon who, in 1969, added a lane to the White House. Look where it got him.

(1) During a golf exhibition in England, Ulysses S. Grant swung and missed several times before saying, "I have always understood the game of golf was good exercise. I fail, however, to see what use there is for a ball."

(2) Bill Clinton teed it up with O.J. just a couple of months before the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. After the round, The Juice said, "I didn't vote for him, but now I'm a big fan." There's an endorsement you want.

(3) At the 1995 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the first time three presidents golfed together, Clinton launched a ball into a neighboring backyard; Gerald Ford struck a spectator with an errant shot (Hope once joked, "It's not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course. You just follow the wounded"); and George H.W. Bush beaned two fans, one of whom needed stitches.

While Jimmy Carter was fishing in Georgia in 1979, a swamp rabbit gnashing its teeth swam toward his canoe. The commander in chief deflected it with an oar, but the story of his being attacked by a bunny haunted him the rest of his term.


Sometimes presidents have an opportunity to advance worthy causes through sports. Yes, they can!

(1) Warren G. Harding remitted a fine in 1921 so that Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champ, who had been convicted on a spurious morals charge, could be released early from prison.

(2) Before the 1948 election, Harry Truman hosted African-American Olympians at the White House. Months earlier, he had issued historic executive orders desegregating the armed forces and the civil service.

(3) John F. Kennedy gave Redskins owner George Preston Marshall a choice: integrate the team or lose the right to play at publicly owned DC Stadium.

(4) Lyndon Johnson pressed his buddy Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal to recruit black players.

(5) Clinton took his daughter, Chelsea, to a George Washington basketball game in 1995, then stayed for part of the women's contest. This was seen by some as an endorsement of gender equity in college sports.


If the Nationals invite you to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day, sir, hold your nose and take the mound.

(1) In 1885, Grover Cleveland declined an invitation to attend a major league game, saying, "What do you imagine the American people would think if I wasted my time going to the ball game?" He lost the '88 election to Benjamin Harrison, who later became the first incumbent to attend a big league game.

(2) In his 1920 campaign, GOP candidate Harding sought The Babe's help to counter Ty Cobb's endorsement of Ohio governor James Cox. "Hell, no," Ruth said. "I'm a Democrat." He then added, "How much are they offering?" As it turned out, $4,000, but Ruth stayed on the bench.

(3) Franklin D. Roosevelt told baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis during WWII that the game must go on. Landis quickly increased the number of night games so that factory workers could attend.


Just because you're the leader of the free world doesn't mean you're master of the sports universe. Please Remember: the title is "president," not…

Nixon was such a Redskins fan that he traveled to Camp David to watch games blacked out in the District. In 1971, he suggested to coach George Allen that he use a flanker reverse in a playoff game against the 49ers. The play lost 13 yards.

On Augusta National's 17th hole, a loblolly pine stands in the left edge of the fairway 210 yards from the Masters tee. Dwight Eisenhower hit into the tree so often that, at a club governors' meeting in 1956, he proposed it be cut down. Augusta co-founder Clifford Roberts ruled the president out of order and adjourned the meeting. Ever since, the pine has been known as the Eisenhower Tree.

Apparently not busy enough managing the country (and fending off bunnies), Carter personally approved the schedule for the White House tennis courts.

Calvin Coolidge once told reporters, "Babe Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching."

In one of his last ceremonial sporting acts as president, George W. Bush shanked a 15-yard kick before the 2008 Army-Navy football game.


When games are played, sometimes it's tough to tell what's fair and what's fowl.

(1) In 1976, Ford met the San Diego Chicken, the first pro-sports mascot. Later, New York Times reporter Jim Naughton bought one of the Chicken's heads for $100 and wore it to a Ford press conference in Portland. The president didn't flinch, and that head is now in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.

(2) At the Texas-Texas A&M game on Thanksgiving Day 1972, LBJ bet adviser Arthur Krim $50 that the Longhorns would win. Late in the third quarter, with UT ahead by several scores, Johnson decided to make it interesting. "If Texas doesn't return this punt for a touchdown," he proposed, "you win." After Longhorn Jim Moore took it to the house, Johnson collected his $50, put on his hat and left.