Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Dear Sports Fan,

I know we’ve had presidents who were actors (well, at least one) and presidents who were generals, and lots who were lawyers. Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Thanks,
Richard


Dear Richard,

We have had presidents who were athletes. Off the top of my head, I know that Gerald Ford played center for a big-time college football team, which makes it doubly funny that his Saturday Night Live parody was almost completely based on his clumsiness. Barack Obama’s skill on the basketball court is probably a little overstated, but its importance to him cannot be. I believe Teddy Roosevelt overcame a fairly severe asthma condition to become an avid outdoorsman and big game hunter. And we all know how much exercise he got on the stairs in Brooklyn. I don’t think George W. Bush played a sport at the collegiate level, but the first pitch strike he threw out in the World Series after 9/11 was a chill-inducing presidential athletic moment in my memory. You deserve an answer with a little more weight though, so I researched the topic. Here is what I found.

I’ll stick with my original answer. Gerald Ford was one of our most athletic presidents. He not only played center for the University of Michigan, but he also played linebacker and long snapper. In 1932 and 1933 his University of Michigan Team was undefeated and won the national championship. Even more impressively, in 1934, Ford briefly quit the team in protest for the racially motivated benching of his best friend on the team, an African-American running back named Willis Ward.

George H. W. Bush also played college sports. He was first baseman and captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series ever held. Oddly enough, he was also a member of the Yale cheerleading squad, something his father, and his son, future president George W. Bush, also did at Yale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower has a compelling athletic back story. While attending the U.S. military academy at West Point, he played football, starting at running back and linebacker in 1912. He either made or missed a tackle on the legendary Jim Thorpe, (sources seem to disagree, but even today, a tackle is a highly subjective statistic, so we’ll give it to him.) He also injured his knee badly enough to need to give up football… although Wikipedia claims he then moved on to “fencing and gymnastics,” which are both highly knee-dependent sports, so who knows. There’s also the mysterious matter of the Eisenhower baseball controversy. In the summer before he went the West Point, he may or may not have played semi-professional baseball under the pseudonym, “Wilson.” If he did, then he may be our only president who personally violated the NCAA ban on paying “student athletes.”

Many other presidents have been athletes. George Washington apparently had a hell of an arm. John F. Kennedy was on the swimming team at Harvard, an avocation which may have saved his life when his patrol boat went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. But my favorite piece of presidential athletic trivia that I picked up was from this article on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not only a champion wrestler who took on all comers and a fair number of wagers during his life, but he was also an excellent handball player! In a moment that parallels and foreshadows President Obama’s tradition of playing basketball on election days by almost 150 years, Lincoln played handball (and was injured slightly) while waiting for news of the 1860 Presidential nominating convention.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

Understanding Tour de France TV Graphics – Department Numbers

Dear Sports Fan,

While watching LIVE broadcast from Tour de France, from time to time there is a note with the name of place, city where particular racers are. And there is always a number in brackets. And I’m wondering, what does that number mean?

Best Regards,
Michal

Tour de France Number
What does the 88 mean?

— — —

Dear Michal,

Thanks so much for your question and for sending a screenshot of the TV graphic you’re asking about. I had no idea what those numbers are but this morning, I woke up and searched around on the internet for a while and I think I’ve figured it out.

The number in brackets next to the name of the town the Tour de France riders are racing through is the department of France the town is in. For example, in the image here, the riders are traveling through Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont. Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont is a small commune or township in France which is 70% covered by forest and has around 1,500 households in it. It sounds like a very nice place except for the periodic tragic floods it withstands due to being at the base of a water-system from a glacial lake in the mountains above it. The town was first settled in 870 by a monastery of women. Most importantly to our discussion though is that it is within the Vosges department.

A department is one of the tiered level of regional government in France: regions, departments, and communes in order of size. The history of the department is fascinating. It was created during the French Revolution and was intended to be a rational way of dividing the country. Each of the 83 (there are now 96) departments was designed so that its farthest inhabitants would still only be a day’s trip on horseback from the capital of the department and its borders were intentionally drawn across traditional boundaries to break up older political identities. The departments were named after geographic  features instead of ethnic or political ones. A pessimist would say that this was because the leaders of the French revolution had recently seen just how vulnerable a government can be if it can’t control its people but an optimist would reply back that a certain amount of central control and assimilation is necessary to establish the identity of any nation.

Of course, at this point, all we’re trying to do is enjoy watching the Tour de France on television! Today’s stage 20 will travel through the department of Dordogne [24,] so watch out for the number 24 as you go! If you want to know more about Dordogne or almost any department of France, you can go to its website which is usually www.cg[department number].fr. Dordogne’s is www.cg24.fr.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of the Tour,
Ezra Fischer

Is it Fair to Mock Tim Tebow for his Religion?

Dear Sports Fan,

I saw that a couple of football players were making fun of Tim Tebow for praying. What’s up with that? Do you think it’s fair to mock Tim Tebow for his religion?

Thanks,
Cody

— — —

Hey Cody,

It’s a close call, but I do think it’s okay to mock Tim Tebow’s religiosity. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s a little background. Tim Tebow is a Quarterback, currently playing for the Denver Broncos in the NFL, who won two National Championships in college with the University of Florida football team. In college he became incredibly famous, mostly for his football playing prowess, but also for his religious beliefs which he was unabashedly public about. In 2009 a reporter asked him if he was a virgin and he said he was. He also showed some humor, saying, “I think you’re stunned right now,” Tebow joked with reporters after revealing his virginity. “You can’t even ask a question. … I was ready for that question, but I don’t think ya’ll were.” In 2010, Tebow publicized his beliefs further by participating in a Super Bowl commercial for Focus On the Family which (between the lines, as it were) promoted an anti-abortion message by celebrating Tebow’s mom’s decision to continue her pregnancy despite being advised by a doctor not to. As Brian Phillips writes in his well-worth reading article on Tebow on Grantland, “A trillion words have been written about this already, but suffice it to say that if you see him as the avatar of muscular Christianity in football, you know that in his bland, smiling, placidly self-confident way, he sees himself that way, too.”

These days, Tebow has somehow become even more polarizing as he has emerged in mid-season as the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Two weekends ago he started his first game this season against the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos were down 15-0 at half-time but ended up coming back to win the game in overtime. When they won, cameras caught Tebow kneeling in prayer as his teammates celebrated around him. This act has become a meme over the last week, leading to a website selling shirts… and to any number of photos and videos of people performing their own acts of “Tebowing.”

This past Sunday’s game did not go quite so well for the Broncos or for Tebow. The Broncos lost 45 to 10 to the Detroit Lions and Tebow played badly, throwing one interception and fumbling three times. The Lions were not satisfied just by winning, they also picked a couple choice moments to mock Tebow by adopting his now famous praying pose after sacking him or scoring a touchdown.

To your question — which was also asked in this way in the New York Times’ football blog today:

Is it all in good fun?  Tebow invites scrutiny with the very public nature of his religious beliefs, his evangelistic side. But let’s imagine that a player displayed a Muslim religious ritual or one based on Hinduism? Would it be fair to mock those displays as well? If not, why is it fair game for Tebow?

I say yes, it is fair to mock Tebow for his religious displays because Tebow, through his actions has made them part of the public domain. It’s one thing to claim that dropping to his knees in passionate prayer is not a public act even if it is on a playing field with 20+ cameras, but it’s another to claim that someone who used to list bible verses on his eye-black and who has publicly endorsed religious/cultural lobbies it treating his own religious as a private matter. Frankly, I don’t think the players on the Lions were mocking Tim Tebow for his religion, I think they were mocking a sophomore player, who they think is not very good at his craft, for what they consider a self-aggrandizing and maybe just a little prematurely self-congratulatory celebration.

What do you think?
Ezra Fischer

 

What's Up with Realignment in College Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with realignment in college sports? That seems to be all anyone is talking about these days.

Thanks,
Ken


 

Dear Ken,

If you’ve ever wondered why national borders are so messed up — why they break cultural groups in half, ignore obvious geographic boundaries like rivers and mountains, and  geometric conventions like straight lines — then this is the perfect non-violent real life lesson. Over the past couple weeks (and years,) several schools have committed to moving from one conference to another. The borders are shifting.

There’s no need to get into the specifics[1] but suffice it to say that many of them involve relatively impractical moves like Pittsburgh (366 miles from the ocean) into the Atlantic Coast Conference and Texas A&M (Southern, but not particularly Eastern) into the South-Eastern Conference. It’s not all geography — the Big Ten conference now has 12 teams.[2]

The sport that’s driving all of this is football. There’s an enormous amount of money made on college football. According to this CNN article, in 2010 the average school with a football team in one of the major conferences made over a million dollars a game. The important phrase in that sentence is not “over a million,” it’s “major conferences.” Right now the major conferences are the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac 12, the ACC, and the Big East. As these conferences threaten to break up, the member schools are wriggling around in their chairs, trying not to be the last one standing when the music stops. This creates MORE instability, which creates more nervousness, which creates more movement, which creates more instability… I could keep this up all night if it didn’t wear out my suspenders.

There’s nothing I hate more than people who simply argue that everything that once was was better than anything that will be. This is mindless nostalgia, the subject of a recent brilliant essay by Chuck Klosterman,[3] and I will try to avoid it. However, it seems to me that letting the profit from a single sport drive who everyone other athlete in those schools play (and how far they have to travel to do it) is too bad. It’s another sign that the big money college sports, football and basketball, need to be more fully divorced from track and field, swimming, soccer, field hockey, etc. We can have semi-pro football and basketball teams affiliated with universities that do not drag everyone else through this mud and that are not as inherently hypocritical as the “amateur” leagues are now but that still are profitable enough to fund the non-money sports.

Not sure if I answered your question or just added to your list of people who are talking about realignment but thank you for your question.

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Because it’s pretty boring, even to crazy college football fans. This website does a ridiculously compendious job of covering it.
  2. They compounded this mistake by dividing the league into two six team divisions, one named “Legends” and one named “Leaders.” Both divisions are made up of teams of college kids.
  3. Although I must say… his writing used to be way better in the early aughts…”

Why is Soccer so Liberal?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can sports be liberal or conservative? Why does soccer seem so liberal?

Curious,
Nicholas


 

Dear Nicholas,

What an interesting question. Sports definitely carry political overtones that vary from time to time and culture to culture. For instance, I spent a semester in Cape Town, South Africa during college. Although things are slowly changing, the political/racial meanings of sport set during Apartheid were still present. Football (soccer) is a black sport in South Africa while Rugby is an Afrikaans sport.[1] Cricket is also wildly popular although more so among the White/Coloured (it’s a technical term) population than among Black people. It’s all very complicated.

In the United States soccer is one of the more interestingly politically loaded sports. See this tongue-in-cheek article from Deadspin.com entitled “Soccer: The Liberal Plot to Destroy America.” Sure, NASCAR has a cartoonish identification with Southern conservatives, and golf is tight with the political party of the rich… but why is soccer seen as a liberal sport? There are two main reasons — one historical and one current.

Soccer as we know it in this country — with the youth leagues and the screaming parents on the sidelines and the “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” —  began in the late 60s and early 70s as part of the counter-cultural revolution. Football was too tightly associated with the traditional drink beer, marching band, date the cheerleader, join the marines and go to war life for pot-smoking, Vietnam war protesting, Woodstock going hippies. Soccer was an ideal sport to coalesce around because right at that time Johan Cruijff was ascending to his place as one of the best players of all time. He also happened to be making himself into a counter-cultural idol due to his unique style and radical (and out-spoken) ideas.

Although it’s been 40+ years, I think this explains much of the non-violent, everyone wins, liberal stereotypes about soccer. There’s another thing, something that’s even more true now than it was in the 70s. The best soccer in the world is not played in the United States. If you want to watch the best soccer in the world, you have to watch the English Premier League,[2] the Spanish La Liga, or wait around for the big international tournaments like the World Cup or the European Championships. This is a big difference from Football (okay the rest of the world just doesn’t care) or Basketball, Hockey, or Baseball where the best players in the world come to our league to perform. Insofar as liberals are associated with a greater internationalism and conservatives are associated with isolationist tendencies, then it makes sense that being a soccer fan is seen as a liberal thing to do.

What’s funny about this (and this is far too large of a topic to cover here, so I’ll just nod towards it) is that soccer leagues in other countries are far more capitalist than our leagues. Players are not traded, they are “sold.” If a team does not do well it can be thrown out of the league and relegated to a lower league. Compare that to an NFL team like the Detroit Lions that has not had a winning season since 2000. Not only does it get to keep playing in the NFL, but they receive gobs of money from the other teams in the form of revenue sharing of television, merchandising, and ticket money.

One last bonus factoid that you can use at cocktail parties: in the late 1800s when football and baseball were in their infancy, football, the more physical sport, was played by the upper classes, and baseball was a lower class sport. Why? Well — if you had to work in a factory or a farm you certainly were not about to risk breaking bones playing football. Leave that foolishness to rich college boys!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Which is why it was so meaningful for Nelson Mandela to embrace the team during the 1995 Rugby World cup. I think this is the plot of that movie with the 5-10, 160 pound Matt Damon playing a 6-3 238 pound rugby player… I haven’t seen it.
  2. Which starts their season today!