Tag Archives: sports

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.

There is No Winning Team

Every time I scroll Facebook or Twitter, I am reminded of the election. I don’t want to think about it right now. I still have a bit of a numb feeling. It reminds me a lot of when my Kansas City Royals lost the 2014 World Series. I’ve been a rabid Royals fan all of my life, and after losing Game 7, I felt disappointed and like the build up that gave me so much hope that October had been taken away.

After that game, I stopped reading about the Royals for a long time. I didn’t obsess over them that offseason. I couldn’t read the think-pieces about why Alex Gordon didn’t try to score from third on a shallow fly ball. Sure it would have been risky, but it could have been the difference. I hated the Giants for a long time after that too. Madison Bumgarner’s name still irritates me.

Then came 2015. They played more games. They won a lot of them. We returned to the World Series and won. It was magical. Not quite the same after losing the year before, and experiencing that disappointment, but still incredible. I grew up dreaming of that moment, and to fall short really hurt me, but winning in 2015 helped heal that.

Politics are a lot like sports. We treat our candidates and our parties like opposing teams. This is unhealthy, by most accounts, and has likely contributed to the polarization in our society. There are some fans who love a good story, who enjoy the game, and then there are some who are provincial, loyal to their core, and haters of those not like them. What kind of sports fan are you? I’m a little embarrassed to admit I am the latter. I love my hometown team. I’m loyal to them. I want them to win. And I’m a hater otherwise. What type of fan are you?

Is this how I am politically? I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so. It’s no secret I am liberal. Yet, I, like many of my friends who grew up in middle America, have always been reluctant to embrace or take on the Democrat label. Indeed, I find myself critiquing the DNC quite often. As I kid, I leaned right. It was mostly because of my surrounding, the influence of my family, and lack of education about the world and the people in it. I’ve never felt particularly tied or represented by either party. Yet, last night I was clearly on team blue. I don’t really care for Clinton and I disapprove of her style of politics and many of her policies (she is so easy to critique) but she was the clear choice. So too were some local Democratic candidates (that also lost). They best fit my views.

Politics, to me, are not about morality or conscious. It’s all about compromise. It’s about understanding you may view the world one way privately but also recognize subjecting everyone to the limitations or your views is unfair. It’s about seeing others and trying to accommodate both views. What type of political behavior do you engage in? Is it inclusive?

Team politics blur this, I think. It creates a myopic and oppositional view of your team versus their team. It dehumanizes the other side acting as a barrier to understanding. As a sports fan, this is OK. Rivalry is fun and important to sporing traditions. Narratives of us versus them are inspiring and amusing because it is just a game; it’s just entertainment. Sure, sometimes fans get violent and unruly, but that is rare. The other great thing about sports is that there is always next year. My team may lose, but we’ll have another chance to win before too long.

The pain many Americans are feeling is not just because their candidate lost and the opposition scares them. It’s the the realization that there is no next year. Instead, the next “big” election is four years away. The build up and excitement crashed down into disappointment because we’re left with an oppositional winner that we fear because the narratives of the game have told us to. I’m not saying Donald Trump and his election rhetoric is not scary, but the overwhelming fear and dumbfounded feeling we have is, at least in part, a product of the Team Narrative, which encourages us to imagine our opponents as sick and vile, and see their fans in a certain derogatory way. We’ve been conditioned to operate this way. And when we lose, we’ve been told there’s another game tomorrow night, next week, or next year. The next game helps us get over the last. It gives us a new opponent, new hope for winning, and a reason to keep improving.

Although I didn’t follow the Royals too closely during the offseason between 2014 and 2015, I stayed abreast of their moves. The front office analyzed its weaknesses and worked to improve the team. They signed new players, drafted young talent, and rebuilt their roster for the new season. In 2015, we won the most games in the American League, and used our experience from 2014 to march through the playoffs and into the World Series. And we won.

For some, the “next year” in politics is the 2020 presidential election. For others it is 2018 midterms. This means the next two to four years are our offseason. What do we do to make our “team” better? I hope that step one is to think beyond our “team.” We need to try to better understand our country, all of it. We also need to work to make sure our country — and everyone in it — better understand us. How well do you know the other side? How well do they know you? The answers to those questions point to, I think, the disunity of the country. Unlike sports, politics are not entertainment (even if the media treats them that way), there is no us versus them, it is all about us.

On Kaepernick

I’ve kept most of my commentary about Colin Kaepernick confined to Twitter, and “clicking like” on people’s posts on Facebook. As many of you know, I was an MA student at Nevada while he was the quarterback for the Wolf Pack. During that time I became a fan of his, and I have been following his career with interest ever since. What’s more, I teach an African American Studies course here at Purdue called “The Black Athlete.” So the story is relevant to me as both a fan and a scholar.

First, I think it is important to take note of the evolution of Kaepernick’s image. When I was a student at Nevada he was a community hero, a beloved figure to almost everyone. At Nevada he was a hero, but people also recognized he had a complex identity. They respected that and sought to understand him. The media did countless profiles on him and his background, revealing the nuance to his identity.

That treatment and that understanding did not follow him to the NFL. Once he went to the league, few people were aware of who he was, his complex identity, or personality. The national media did not dig up or rely on the Nevada narratives. Instead, while they liked his play, they also saw his tattoos and celebrations, making their own narratives. Quickly he became labeled a “thug,” immature, etc. He was caricatured along the lines of most black athletes, and became stripped of the complex nuances in his life; turned into a stereotype not a man. This representation held no matter his success. In fact, I witnessed many of my own colleagues openly rooting against him in Super Bowl XLVII because they didn’t like his image, attitude, etc., buying into the new and revised narratives.

Of course, the difference between local, college media and national media is important here. But what has struck me, and I have only been able to fully recognized what troubled me for so long in the last year after teaching my course, is that in watching the revision of the Kaepernick narrative from college to the NFL I have been watching how racism works in America. We are capable and even willing to understand and appreciate certain athletes, behaviors, images, in a local, friendly, (and perhaps possessive) setting, but when they become unfamiliar, when they are the enemy, have a larger stage, etc. we care less, take less time, to dig deeper. Nationally, we are OK and comfortable with the caricatures and stereotypes that we would never tolerate in other contexts.

Following Friday’s demonstrations, the stereotypes continue for most. Entitled, ungrateful, prima donna, anti-American, etc. Others yet seemed baffled that an alleged “thug” could also be an activist, retreating to the commonly held stereotype that athletic ability and intellectual depth are mutually exclusive. The perpetuation of these stereotypes are indicative of the exact culture and treatment that Kaepernick is speaking out against.

Second, the analysis of Kaepernick’s demonstration and activism that I have read, has largely ignored the connections to W.E.B. Du Bois. As I learned today, Friday, when he refused to stand for the national anthem, was also the anniversary of Du Bois’ death. Du Bois, of course, coined the term “double consciousness” referring to how African Americans are both black and Americans, a twin identity that is often hard to reconcile given the history of this country and its relationship to race. Indeed, this likely was not lost on Kaepernick. As my friends at Nevada know, each student is required to take “Core Humanities” courses, one of which covers the American Experience. These courses are about perspectives and include discussion sections. DuBois is almost certainly a topic covered.

Additionally, Kaepernick joins a long tradition of black athletes engaging in activism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famously refused to play in the 1968 Olympics, saying “It’s not my country” about being unpersuaded by a patriotic duty to compete. Ali, of course, refused induction in the Army. They too invoked Du Bois’ concept, explicating their black identity from larger American nationalist and imperialistic goals that they could not reconcile with their realities. There are several other examples that I wont list here.

I offer these two points to help us understand the historic context of Kaepernick’s actions. The present context is equally complex. A flawed criminal justice system has given rise to the Black Lives Matters moment, Donald Trump has incited a resurgence in white supremacist ideals, and the NFL continues to be the “no fun league” with a major image problem. All of these issues continue to unfold, while Kaepernick pledges to continue “demonstrating” until some sort of real, substantive change happens. Some will say that regardless of the outcome, Kaepernick has been successful redirecting our attention and starting conversations. This is true, but like our awareness of nuance and complexity at the personal level, it can too easily be ignored and written off from a distance. As the story continues, I hope that the narratives surrounding Kaepernick will help us rethink and reevaluate national stereotypes and policies, help us better empathize with pain of living with racism in America, and inspire us to work together to not nostalgically “make American great again” but instead progressively make America a great place for all of us.

Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma

This week I’ve been Tweeting and sharing stories and links about the events at the University of Oklahoma. The video showing racist behavior by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity members is disturbing. I’ve tried to add some context by sharing my research into the history of Oklahoma and the university. During these discussions, I’ve payed particularly close attention to OU Football Coach Bob Stoops. He’s done a tremendous job of coming out against the actions and taking a firm stand against racism. President Boren has also done an admirable job providing quick, decisive leadership. The fraternity has already been shut down. Two of its member have also been expelled for their behavior.

Today news came out that Coach Bob Stoops, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the University of Oklahoma football did not practice yesterday (which was supposed to be their first spring practice). Instead, they met at the football complex, prayed together, and then marched through campus arm-in-arm demonstrating against racism. The Oklahoma Football Twitter account Tweeted pictures using #notonOUrcampus and #Sooners Stand United.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 5.51.55 PM

Also on Monday, top-recruit Jean Delance announced he would not attend OU and decommitted. These actions illustrate the importance of football as a symbol of the university. I’ve focused predominately on the actions of the football team at OU because it’s my area of research. My dissertation explores the OU football dynasty during the 1950s, and how it came to represent the state and create pride for its citizens. Football became a symbol of not just the university, but also the state. Bud Wilkinson, the football coach during that era, became one of the most important people in the state (this later led him to run for political office). The central role of football in the state is significant, and thus the leadership of its coach is crucial for gaining the attention of Sooners. After all, as my study shows, football played a key role in shaping the state’s culture. I believe Stoops and the OU football team continue to do so today.

Race and football has a long history together. The University of Oklahoma was the second to last football program to integrate its team in the old Big 8 (Missouri was the last). Though they were 14 years ahead of their biggest rival, the University of Texas, who integrated in 1970, it was a slow process. OU faced two Supreme Court cases during the late-1940s that would eventually force integration of the university. It took nearly four years from the first lawsuit until African-Americans were finally admitted. Once admitted, the University dragged its feet. Using railings and ropes, it tried to keep black students separate in classrooms. University President George Cross received hundreds of letters. Many of them from local residents deploring the idea, while out-of-state writers shamed Oklahoma for treating African-American students like animals, caging them off with ropes and railings. Soon, there were similar concerns about the integration of the student union and the football stadium. Could black students attend games? Would the intensity of sports cause problems? Administrators debated the pros and cons. Though George McLaurin and Ada Lois Sipuel sought educational equality, not athletic integration, they clearly got the ball rolling.

Indeed, in 1950 coach Bud Wilkinson announced that he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team. A few tried out, but no one made the team until 1956. Prentice Gautt, a fullback from Oklahoma City became the first black player on the University of Oklahoma football team. He was a standout athlete at all-black Douglas High School. During his high school career, Gautt played in the first-ever integrated game in the state of Oklahoma. He was also the first African-American to play in the state all-star game, though he was a late addition and it required special permission.

Gautt’s success at OU was due, in part, to the support he received from the African-American community in Oklahoma City. According to Sooner Magazine, “A group of black doctors and pharmacists in Oklahoma City had funded a four-year scholarship for a scholar-athlete who could make the grade at OU.” This would save Wilkinson, and presumably other OU coaches, from having to use an athletic scholarship on a black player, which undoubtedly would have created a quite a controversy among fans and boosters. Because of Gautt’s athletic prowess, he easily could have chosen to attend another school who had offered him a real scholarship (a year later Gautt was given an athletic scholarship), but OU’s football clout meant more to him. They were the best team not just in Oklahoma, but the entire country. Playing at OU allowed him to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.

The Sooners were in the middle of a 47-consecutive game winning streak when Gautt joined the team. The 1956 team was named national champions for the second year in a row, but because of eligibility rules Gautt was relegated to the freshman team. Oddly, I’ve found relatively little coverage of Gautt and the integration of football at OU in the mainstream white press. Because of the earlier Supreme Court cases, the papers seemed to believe that Oklahoma was progressive and had moved beyond race. This, of course, was not true. The newspapers do reveal some of the difficulties Gautt faced. A few of his fellow freshman refused to play along side an African-American. Because of this, one of these teammates decided to leave OU. Most, however, supported him. When the freshman team was denied integrated dining following a game in Tulsa, they chose to walk out in solidarity.

According to Sooner Magazine, Gautt was sure to go out of his way to appease Southern customs, such as avoiding being seen with a female classmates. “When class was over, she would go back to the Quad, and I’d go the same way to practice,” he told the magazine. “I can remember slowly putting up my brushes one at a time, washing them and washing them and thinking `Holy cow, we have to do all of this…” Indeed, he struggled to have much of a social life in Norman and instead often drove to back home to Oklahoma City.

He earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year (just as the winning-streak ended). On the varsity team he continued to face racism. In Texas, state laws prohibited housing Gautt with the team in their Worth Hotel in Fort Worth before the big OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, so other arrangements had to be made. Like earlier, the team showed solidarity and changed venues with him. Despite these set backs, Gautt stuck with it. During his junior year, he finally came into his own on the field. He was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. Success helped Gautt become more accepted on campus and in Oklahoma.

Following his playing day at OU, Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He stayed in Cleveland for a year before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. After seven years with the Cardinals, Gautt retired and became an assistant for Dan Devine at Missouri in 1968. While coaching, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology focusing on minority athletes. Eventually he joined the Big 8 (and later Big 12) as an assistant commissioner.

Gautt’s experience at Oklahoma shaped his later career and how he viewed race and athletics. In a TV interview during Bud Wilkinson’s 1964 U.S. Senate campaign, Gautt outlined some of his experience at OU and his views on Civil Rights and racial issues in sport.

Well you know this problem of integration, the Civil Rights bill, the Public Accommodations bill, they are, to me, when I hear people talk about it, it’s a big farce. Because it is easy for a person to get up and say I’m for civil rights, I’m for equal opportunity and I’m for this and I’m for that. But I believe until you make the first move in acting, or acting out what you’re saying, it’s no good.

Gautt believed in action, and he thought words were meaningless unless the were backed up. Bud Wilkinson backed up his word and Gautt supported him for Senate because “I have experienced it [Wilkinson’s actions].” During the interview, Gautt explained one example where Wilkinson stood up for Gautt and cut through racist views on the football team.

In 1959, uh we had a problem. We had, I was up for all-American, we had several fellas on the team that resented this. They didn’t think that I should have been up. They began to talk about me behind my back. We played Northwestern, we lost a very crucial game, our first game of the season. We came back we beat a team just barely, then we went to Texas, we played, we lost the game. We came back for practice that Tuesday. Tuesday we had a lousy practice. And he called us up in a huddle, and he said everybody in. We were really amazed because practice wasn’t over. He came into the dressing room we were in there milling around, talking with each other, and everybody sat down as he came in, and he said I want to talk to you for a moment. He said the fellow you’ve been talking about, he didn’t do, he didn’t ask for this all-American publicity. He didn’t ask for anything, the sportswriters selected him. He had the publicity from the paper. And I think it’s unjust that you talk about him behind his back. And until all of you decide that you want to play ball, you want to play together, that you’re men enough, and then stand up and tell him the things that you’ve said about him behind his back, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. And he walked out and slammed the door. Well, immediately fellas began to stand up and apologize to me for what they’d said. We band together, got together and we played wonderful football, at least up until the Nebraska game, which we lost. I think that was one of the first time Oklahoma had lost to the Big 8, one of the Big 8 foes, in pretty good a while.

(The quotes above are from this video interview).

Wilkinson was able to provide this leadership because, according to Gautt, he was “a secure person who felt pretty good about who and what he was.” He had the respect and the authority because of his success and his position within the state to say “You can he a part of my program. Regardless of what other people think or feel or do, I want you to be a part of my program.” This, in turn, put Gautt at ease and allowed him to trust his coach.

The response at OU follows this tradition. President Boren’s strong words have been followed by swift action and expulsions. Coach Stoops, like Wilkinson, has displayed remarkable leadership as well. Monday’s protest demonstrates to Oklahoma football players, and fans of the program, that its leader will not tolerate racism.

Gautt’s words, his example, and his determination still loom larger for the Sooners. The Prentice Gautt Academic Center connected to Memorial Stadium supports Oklahoma athletes academically. Likewise, until his death in 2005, Gautt frequently returned to OU to offer his wisdom. In 1987 he told Sooner Magazine, “Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go in terms of people relating to people. We’re not talking about just black to white and white to black: we’re talking about people relating, families, husbands and wives, kids and other kids. Underlying that is a message of love–what it really means to care for somebody.” As Oklahoma moves forward, I hope these words from one of the school’s most important racial pioneers guide it. It’s heartening to see Stoops and the football team lead the way. Like Wilkinson and Gautt breaking barriers in the 1950s, the cultural importance of football remains important and will go a long way in starting the healing process.

My 2014 in Pictures

Book Review: The Games the Presidents Played

I’m in the midst of reading for my prelims this summer. The progress is moving slowly and has been a bit haphazard so far, but I think I’m starting to find my feet.

One of the latest books I have read was so engaging that I felt compelled to post something here about it. The book wasn’t originally on my reading lists but I added it for fun. It covers a topic that I’ve personally been interested in for quite a while now: sports and the American Presidency. It’s a rare book that I read slowly (and completely) over the past few days, conquering a couple chapters each night to unwind before going to sleep. Now having completed it, I’m convinced it’s a book useful to just about all U.S. historians.

The book is John Sayle Watterson’s, The Games the Presidents Played: Sports and the Presidency. The book spans twenty-three chapters organized into five sections tracing the changing relationship that sports and recreation have had with U.S. Presidents and the presidency. Beginning with George Washington and ending with George W. Bush, Watterson does his best to discuss each office holder, but the bulk of the text (4/5ths) covers the 20th century. While Watterson suggests George Washington may have been the greatest presidential athlete, he makes it clear that Theodore Roosevelt fundamentally changed the role and meaning of sports for modern presidents.

Watterson defines sports and games fairly loosely, including things like fishing, hunting, horseback riding, bridge, and poker alongside activities more common and recognizable to readers such as baseball, golf, and tennis. His broad definition allows him to paint an overview of presidential athletic endeavors. Although his definition is sometimes too broad and slippery, it allows him to traverse the 18th and 19th centuries with a rich texture of anecdotes that bring his presidential characters to life before going into more detail with the 20th century office holders.

Indeed, these stories are in many ways the strength of the book and why I believe it will be useful for a large cross-section of U.S. historians. Watterson uses sports and games as means to explore and develop an understanding of presidential personalities and style. Stories that may seem to some readers like bar trivia offer a window into the daily lives of presidents revealing their hobbies and foibles. For example, Watterson shares two stories about Washington and Lincoln getting into bar fights. Washington overpowered his attacker, who was surprised at the future president’s strength, while Lincoln intimidated his opposer with his quick wit and imposing stature. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but picture teaching a U.S. History survey armed with these stories.

To be sure, the book was filled with more than just presidential sports trivia and fun anecdotes. Watterson relies on papers and correspondence from presidents, their doctors, and other staff members to present a larger picture of the how and why athletic activities were utilized. Many used them simply for exercise and stress relief. Some used games as an opportunity to control or change their public image. Others yet used sports as an opportunity to meet with donors and advisors. As the book illustrates, spors and games were used for a variety of means that continued to change over the course of the 20th century.

Changes in the role and use of sports depended on the personality, health, and political skill of the president. Likewise, the specific historical moment played an important role in shaping both pubic opinion and the availability of leisure time for presidential sports. Watterson concludes by offering 10 guidelines for future president to follow in their engagements with sports, carefully noting that the expectations are always changing, particularly with the potential of a female president on the horizon.

The book is interesting other ways as well. Watterson discusses more than just the personal habits and engagement of individual presidents with sports. He also connects their policies to larger movements. This is most vividly done though the example of Gerald Ford and the opposition to Title IX. Although it is likely that Ford personally agreed with the lobbying of University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler that football should be exempt from the laws strictures, he instead removed himself from the decision making process. In this way, Ford protected his own football legacy while letting important gender equality legislation move forward.

As a sports historian, I enjoyed the book because it offered a solid overview of the development and evolution of the United States’ sporting culture, albeit from the top down. Watterson’s discussion of sports and exercise suggest future studies into the two activities as separate but inextricably linked entities. Finally, and perhaps most simply, he offers a clear illustration of how and why sports matter in politics and to politicians concluding that a certain degree of sports competency will be a requirement for  all future presidents.

Finally,  I think this book is useful for all U.S. historians because of its well written and concise stories and mini-biographies.  As I mentioned earlier, the book is a goldmine of anecdotes and engaging lecture material. While the coverage is light in the early years, there is enough material to be used for both halves of the U.S. history survey. It’s probably too long and too narrow to assign to undergraduates in a survey, but could be serviceable in a sports history of American presidency course.