March Madness has officially begun, an annual event that perfectly combines the American love for underdogs, heroes, sports, and gambling. The effects on productivity lost due to distracted workers during March Madness has been estimated to cost American companies over $1 billion. Experts and amateurs alike will attempt to predict the specific course that the 64 teams will make through the bracket. March Madness has developed beyond just a basketball championship, and is a major social occurrence in our society. This event is treated like a great national holiday of sorts and has achieved recognition all the way at the top. The past 6 years ESPN has incorporated “Baracketology” as an annual segment, featuring the President filling out his projections for the NCAA Championship bracket. This segment has been extremely popular, though it has drawn criticism to the President for focusing on a seemingly unimportant issue. There is, however, a very long history of Presidential involvement in popular sports in our society.
President Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a major outdoorsman and had very strong opinions on the popular sports that were spreading across the country. His participation in football and wrestling were well known, but his evaluation of baseball, the national pastime and most popular sport in the country was more wary. Roosevelt described baseball as “mollycoddle”, harsh words that he would not back down from. Presidents throughout American history have been frequently seen at baseball games and other sporting events for reasons both political and entertainment related.
Other presidents were more active participants in popular sports during their youth before the presidency. Many presidents were student athletes during their time in college, but few were as proficient as President Gerald Ford. As a star offensive lineman for the University of Michigan football team, President Ford won back to back National Championships in 1932 and 1933. He carried his enthusiasm with him to the White House, and requested that the U.S. Naval Band play Michigan’s fight song “The Victors” in lieu of the traditional “Hail to the Chief” when he approached. President Nixon was a three sport athlete in college, and was extremely involved as a fan of sports, to the point that he embroiled himself in a major controversy in college football in 1969. President Nixon was attending the end of year matchup between undefeated Texas and undefeated Arkansas, and presented a “National Champions” plaque that would be given to the victor, much to the chagrin of also undefeated Penn State. Nixon’s decision was further damning in the eyes of some, as the Texas-Arkansas game featured two teams composed of all-white players, the final major American sporting event to do so, and Nixon’s choice encouraged Penn State to refuse to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl later that year, citing the university’s (and the state’s) poor policies relating to race.
President George W. Bush was another President whose sports involvement was tied to the state of Texas, as the 46th President of the United States was previously the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Many presidents have weighed in on or participated heavily in sports, and President Obama’s college basketball enthusiasm is just the next piece of that tradition.
Sports bring us as citizens together. Why can’t they help bring our Commanders in Chief a bit closer too?