Monthly Archives: May 2018

The President’s Council for Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition: Some History and Context

OK, so Trump finally named people to be on his President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. This is something I sort of study and I don’t really understand why people are making a big deal out of his choices (we can talk about policy when we see it). I swear that some people just want to complain to complain. In this post I want to add some history and context to his choices to show how they are fairly normal.

Nearly all of the Council’s past chairs have been famous athletes or coaches. The Council has long used celebrities as ambassadors of fitness. To my knowledge, few since Bud Wilkinson have played a major role in policy development.

For education sake, here is a list of all of the chair/co-chairs in the council’s history. Note the council has changed names a few times. I’ve put notes in parentheses to identify the person’s career, which I think highlights just how normal’s Trump’s picks are. These might be among the most normal thing he’s done while in office.

President’s Council on Youth Fitness
Eisenhower’s Chair: Richard M. Nixon, 1956-1961 (sitting Vice President)

President’s Council on Physical Fitness
Charles (Bud) Wilkinson, 1961 – 1963 (active college football Coach)

President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
Johnson’s Chair: Stan Musial, 1964 – 1967 (Retired MLB Player)
Johnson’s Chair: Hubert H. Humphrey, 1967 (sitting Vice President)
Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter’s Chair: James A. Lovell, 1967 – 1977 (Astronaut)
Carter’s Chair: Jerry Apodaca, 1978 – 1980 (Governor of NM)
Carter’s Chair: Al McGuire, 1980 – 1981 (Retired college basketball Coach)
Reagan’s Chair: George Allen, 1981 – 1988 (Retired NFL Coach)
Reagan’s Chair: Richard Kazmaier, 1988 – 1989 (former college football player, 1951 Heisman)
Bush’s Chair: Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1990 – 1992 (former body builder and actor)
Clinton’s Co-Chair: Florence Griffith Joyner, 1993 – 1998 (former Olympian)
Clinton’s Co-Chair: Tom McMillen, 1993 – 1997 (former college basketball and NBA Player, retired Congressman from MD)
Clinton and Bush’s Chair: Lee Haney,1999 – 2002 (former body builder)
Bush’s Chair: Lynn C. Swann, 2002 – 2005 (former college football and NFL player)
Bush’s Chair: John P. Burke, 2005 – 2009 (CEO of Trek)

President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition
Obama’s Co-chair: Drew Brees, September 2010 – January 2017 (active NFL Player)
Obama’s Co-chair: Dominique Dawes, September 2010 – January 2017 (former Olympian)

President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition
Trump’s Co-chair: Mariano Rivera, 2018-present (retired MLB player)
Trump’s Co-chair: Misty May-Treanor, 2018-present (former Olympian)
Trump’s Co-chair: Herschel Walker, 2018-present (1980 Heisman, retired NFL player)

I think Trump’s renaming of the council is interesting. The only change is a reordering of the words Obama used. While it may be a simple error in transcribing the old name, it could also signal a shift in priorities that emphasizes sports and competition over general fitness. Trump has clearly wanted to put is own stamp on things a president. Subtle as it may be, there are implicit ideological battles at play in a covert culture war over the proper ratio of masculinity, toughness, and discipline in sport versus fitness in our present discourse. Football and yoga are not on the same plane.

I’m working on a more in-depth piece that looks at the history and use of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. While I do think Trump is largely following tradition in appointing celebrity athletes and coaches, there are certainly some questionable figures. Deadspin has a nice break down identifying who’s who on the new council.

By my count there are 7 former athletes and an NFL coach. At least four people have connections to The Apprentice, including an NBC ad buyer. A couple are executives of weight loss, supplement, or fitness products. There a few doctors too, including renown TV quack Dr. Oz. There is also a handful of folks with political connections to Trump or the GOP. One hosted a fundraiser for him at his health club, another served as Romney’s finance director in 2008, and there’s also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most previous councils had a mix of celebrity athletes, doctors, politicians, and people from the fitness industry. This document lists the members of each council from Eisenhower through George W. Bush. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson’s councils relied more on other cabinet members and political figures. Starting with Nixon, the Council took on a different look. He included people such as ABC Sports Executive Roone Arledge, Purdue University President Frederick Hovde, former Olympic Diver Sammy Lee, former Yankee Bobby Richardson, and former Miss America, Judi Ford. Presidents Ford and Carter kept astronaut James Lovell as their council chair as well as some of the same members (Sammy Lee served under all three). Carter also added diversity to his President’s Council, including Hank Aaron, Billy Mills, and Dorothy Hamill. Like Trump, Carter also included business executives, doctors, and TV hosts — but it is unclear if they had the same sort of crony personal connections. 

Sports celebrities, whether former coaches, TV announcers, or retired professional or Olympic athletes remained a mainstay of each council and many council members served for multiple presidents. Sports figures dominated appointments, though Bill Clinton did include Tae Bo spokesman Billy Blanks on his council. Obama further broadened his council, including the addition of nutrition to its name. Among the people he appointed in 2014 were ballerina Misty Copeland, TV cooking show host Rachel Ray, and openly gay former basketball player Jason Collins. His council coordinated with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and efforts to improve the quality of school lunches.

While this hastily assembled post offers only a brief discussion and overview of the council’s membership and history (I hope to offer a bit more depth at another time and perhaps in another venue), I think it shows that Trump’s council doesn’t differ that drastically from previous iterations. As I said at the beginning of this post, there’s not too many reasons to be up-in-arms about the appointments when we look at them in context.

Of course, composition is only a minor thing, especially since most appointments are only for two years at a time. The policies and programming that Trump’s council pursues will certainly provide fodder for deeper analysis. Will Trump push the council to emphasis sports and competition imbued with masculine overtones that drown out and downplay previous efforts that focus on fitness, wellness, and nutrition as too universal and weak? Or will the questionable science and practices of figures like Dr. Oz, Matthew Hesse’s Ab-Cuts, and Chris Tisi’s SlimFast come to characterize the council and steer it towards promoting suspect health and wellness practices?

These are certainly causes for concern. And while I agree with historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela that presidential health matters because it signals the importance of wellness to the American people, my somewhat rudimentary reading of the President’s Council’s history suggests that it generally focuses more on marketing-type advocacy rather than dictating policy. The Obamas changed that a bit, and so much of their advocacy likely will be reversed as Trump continues to create a stark contrast between him and his predecessor, but my gut says his pushback isn’t as drastic as it has been in other areas. In short, I don’t think these choices will make American any less healthy than the terrible policies Trump has already enacted. What they might do is effect the culture of health and fitness. Only time will tell, but certainly we are seeing how sports and fitness continue to be a central (and often overlooked) part of the culture wars.