Unbridled passions

The presidential pursuit of sport reveals competitiveness and ambition searching for a new target

In 1905, football was on the verge of being canceled entirely.

The sport was ludicrously violent, with 18 players having died in just that year alone. Almost 50 people had perished in the five years since the turn of the century. Broken backs and necks were common. Concussions were legion. One player — Harold Moore of Union College — died in November 1905 of a cerebral hemorrhage after being kicked in the head while trying to make a tackle. (Helmets wouldn’t become mandatory in college football until 1939.)

President Theodore Roosevelt understood that sports and politics had a symbiotic relationship that could be exploited by leaders. | Getty Images

Enter Teddy Roosevelt, the president of the United States and an avowed fan not just of football but of violent play, more generally speaking. “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” Roosevelt once said. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”

Roosevelt brought the presidents of Yale, Harvard and Princeton together twice in the fall of 1905 to see if they could agree on a series of reforms that would keep football going while making it safer for its participants. (The Ivy League was, at the turn of the 20th century, the center of the college football universe.)

By the start of the 1906 season, a series of new rules had been adopted — including the forward pass, which led to the evolution of modern football. Roosevelt’s interest in saving football was about a lot more than his enjoyment of the game; he believed that young men engaging in (at times) brutal physical combat was the proper training for a future as a soldier in the service of the country.

Wrote Roosevelt: “There is a certain tendency ... to underestimate or overlook the need of the virile, masterful qualities of the heart and mind. ... There is no better way of counteracting this tendency than by encouraging bodily exercise, and especially the sports which develop such qualities as courage, resolution and endurance.” (Dwight Eisenhower would put it even more bluntly: “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.”)

“The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.” — Dwight D. Eisenhour

Roosevelt then is rightly understood as our first sporting president — in both the sense that he wrestled, boxed, hunted and fished, and that he understood that sports and politics had a symbiotic relationship that could be exploited by leaders. As historian John Sayle Watterson noted, Roosevelt was “the first president to use sports extensively for political purposes.”

Of course, while Roosevelt was the first president to meld sports and politics, the fact is that the two pursuits have been intertwined for thousands of years.

In 776 B.C., the first Olympics were held as both a tribute to the Greek god Zeus and a way for the various city-states of the country to prove their superiority over one another. It was a showcase for champions of each island and city-state.

“We know there was total chaos for a week because anyone who wanted to raise their profile, this was the place and time to do it,” said Paul Christesen, a professor of ancient Greek history at Dartmouth.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the notion of using sports as a way to placate and pacify the people had been officially codified into a phrase: “bread and circuses.” It comes from a line from the poet Juvenal:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

The idea went like this: To keep the people of Rome happy — and pliant  — emperors did two things: (1) they gave out free wheat to keep citizens fed; and (2) they staged gladiatorial contests in the Coliseum that slaked people’s more primal urges.

“Paying for spectacular games, blood sports, parades, religious festivals and chariot races became a standard tool for politicians to win Roman elections during the Republic,” wrote Linda Ellis, a professor at San Francisco State University. “Even in the absence of elections, Roman emperors and provincial governors continued to sponsor lavish entertainment events to demonstrate their generosity and justify their retention of power.”

Since the end of the Second World War — and especially since the advent of television — presidents have leaned more and more on sports to cast a positive image of their presidency and speak to audiences they might not be able to reach any other way.

Sports can cast a positive image on a presidency. No president epitomized that more than John F. Kennedy watching a foul ball during Major League Baseball’s 1963 season opener. | Bettmann Archive

No one epitomized that notion better than John F. Kennedy. Despite a sickly childhood — and a series of illnesses throughout his presidency — the prevailing image of Kennedy for most Americans was of him and his extended family engaged in games of touch football at their compound in Hyannis Port. That Kennedy was often barely able to walk due to back issues — much less able to fully participate in quasi-tackle football — was glossed over. He was regarded as a hale and hearty presence by the public — thanks in large part to his purposeful close associations with sports.

The man Kennedy beat in 1960 — Richard Nixon — was an awkward presence on the football field, effectively used as a tackling dummy during his collegiate years. But the future president was a rabid fan, quoting facts and figures about players and games to anyone who would listen. For the socially challenged Nixon, sports talk was a way to humanize him — and for him to talk to regular joes with whom he felt as though he had little else in common.

Since the end of World War II, presidents have leaned on sports to cast a positive image of their presidency and speak to audiences they might not be able to reach any other way.

If Kennedy was the first modern president to grasp the power of sports to make myths, it was Ronald Reagan who took the mixing of sports and politics to the next level. Reagan was, by all accounts, a decent young athlete — he claimed to have saved 77 people from drowning during his years as a lifeguard. But Reagan’s real genius was in his understanding that being next to great athletes — and, as important, winners — was just as good as being one himself.

President Richard Nixon was a rabid sports fan who loved to talk about players and stats to anyone who would listen. | Corbis via Getty Images

While championship sports teams had, on occasion, visited the White House before Reagan’s term, the “Gipper” formalized the process — welcoming in winners and flashing the showmanship that had made him a successful actor. (After the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 1987, Reagan allowed members of the team to dump a Gatorade bucket full of popcorn — one of his favorite foods — over his head.)

The best overall athlete — in terms of the breadth of the sports he played and the longevity with which he continued to play them — to ever grace the White House was George H.W. Bush. (Yes, Gerald Ford was the best football player — obviously — to ever serve as president. But Bush was more well-rounded. He played tennis. Golfed. Parachuted. Played baseball in college. Did almost any sport that could reasonably be called a sport — and did it well.) 

Bush grew up playing tennis with his mother, who was a skilled and competitive player. He was a light-hitting and slick-fielding first baseman on the Yale baseball team, and even got to meet Babe Ruth just weeks before the Sultan of Swat’s untimely death.

In office, Bush’s competitive fires ran deep — so deep that he organized a March Madness-like tournament of horseshoes played by the permanent White House staff. (There were brackets and everything!) After leaving the presidency, Bush, like all the men who had held the office before and since, found an outlet for his competitive drive in sports. In addition to being an avid golfer and tennis player, Bush even laid claim to inventing the phrase “You da man!” Yes, seriously.

Barack Obama was the first — but probably not the last — baller president. Obama had a basketball court built on the White House grounds, and invites to his regular pickup games were more precious than getting asked to a state dinner. Obama viewed his competitiveness in pickup as an analog for his competitiveness in politics; once he was in the mix, he wanted to win — and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about that desired result. Obama’s rise also dovetailed with the surging popularity of the NBA. Just as Obama was redefining cool in politics, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant were doing the same on the hardwood.

Then there is, of course, Donald Trump. Like so much else with Trump, the story of his athletic prowess is exaggerated. He was a good baseball player in high school but almost certainly not, as he has often claimed, the best baseball player in the state of New York. He is a good bordering‑on‑very-good golfer, but the stories of his many club championships won require a good deal of creative math.

He spent years pursuing an NFL team, and if he had managed to buy one — or turn the USFL’s New Jersey Generals into one — he might never have had the itch to run for president. Sports and politics appealed to Trump for the same, visceral reasons: Someone won and, more important, someone lost. He liked that — as long as he was on the winning team. Always.

Ronald Reagan realized being next to great athletes — and, as important, winners — was just as good as being one himself. | Getty Images

George Orwell once called sports “war without shooting.” And there’s no question that our modern presidents have understood that sports can be used to unite us and to divide us in equal measure. Nixon saw bowling as a way to not only court the middle of the country — his “silent majority” — but also cast them against the coastal elites who looked down on bowling as a sport for the middle class.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there were very real questions about whether sports should continue at all. They did — and, roughly a month later, President George W. Bush strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series.

Wearing a bulletproof vest — and with an air of worry palpable in the stadium — Bush threw a perfect strike, a moment that felt like a catharsis, a signal that even though we were down as a country, we weren’t out.

“At times of national triumph, we rally around them in joy. At times of national tragedy, we rally around them to remember who we are.”

And, after four years of the abnormalities and excesses of Trump, it was sports that Joe Biden reached for to make things more, well, normal. “He’s certainly going to look to sports and sports figures to help bring us back into alignment as Americans,” Francis Biden, the president’s brother, told ESPN.

Sports, like politics, hold a mirror up to us and those we elect to lead us — showing them for who they really are when all the spin, hype and hyperbole are stripped away. For our presidents, what so often is revealed in their athletic careers, their fandom, and their leisure pursuits is a raw and unbridled competitiveness and ambition in search of a target.

For George H.W. Bush, raised to always be mannerly and kind to others, sports was where he could let his inner animal out. For his son, George W. Bush, the maniacal running and biking he took up after giving up drinking was a way to funnel his energies and compulsions. For Nixon, his fanatical fandom gave him a way to connect with Joe Q. Public and appear just a little less awkward (and unathletic). Trump viewed sports the way he viewed life — a life-and-death competition where the goal wasn’t just to win but to destroy one’s opponent. 

Competition is sanctioned — and encouraged in sports. It’s a safe space where these men felt unafraid to want and want and want — in ways that would have been dismissed as overly forward or arrogant in the context of politics. Sports then was a pressure release valve for many of our nation’s leaders, a way for them to sate the ever-burning competitive fires without looking too, well, extra in doing so.

But sports did more than that, too. They showed us the best of what we could be — even if they forced us to face uncomfortable political truths in the process.

Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball led the way for the broader integration of the country. The protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics shone a light on inequality in America. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam forced Americans to come to grips with what we were really doing in Southeast Asia. The U.S. women winning the World Cup in 1999 redefined what “plays like a girl” meant. LeBron James wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” warmup shirt forced the country to focus on how the police treat young African American men.

“There’s a reason that every country has its sports it loves,” explained Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state under Bush. “They embody somehow the nation and the national spirit and the national pride, and they rally around these sports figures. At times of national triumph, we rally around them in joy. At times of national tragedy, we rally around them to remember who we are.” 

Excerpted from “Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency,” ©2023 Chris Cillizza and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.