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Mr. President, The Ball Is In Your Court

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's gratifying to have a leader with a physique and a jumper, President Obama, but just because you're a sports guy doesn't automatically mean that's good for the country. It can go either way, actually, sir. More than one citizen was struck by Gerald Ford's errant tee shots. And why do you suppose that pine tree on the 17th fairway at Augusta is nicknamed the "Eisenhower tree"? As with any issue vital to the republic, what you need is a sports czar to point you in the right direction and set your agenda as well as help you avoid the mistakes of your predecessors, such as boycotting the wrong thing or biking when you should be thinking.

Mr. President, you talk of "the work of remaking America," but it will be equally important to remake the play of America, because games are a reflection of a nation's health and ours could do with some reform. You seem to have appointed The Washington Post's Sports section as your de facto athletics advisers -- the other day when you paid a call to the paper, you didn't ask to speak with the opinion editors, or the book critics. No, you asked, "Where are the sports people?" Here we are, sir. We serve at your pleasure. If you could give us some of those spiffy portfolios with the presidential seal and maybe even some deputizing badges with certain powers of law enforcement, that would be helpful, because reform won't be easy, Mr. President. You have some powerful adversaries. If you really expect us to get anywhere, you might also consider conferring powers of audit, and impoundment.

We know your mind, from certain public statements you've already made. Forthwith, a presidential sports agenda, with suggested courses of action for your all-important first 100 days in office:

1. Liberate college football from the tyranny of the Bowl Championship Series. You've pledged to use your muscle to do away with the skewed BCS system and to create an eight-team playoff. Actually, this may be one of the easiest things to accomplish in your first term. Opposition to a playoff comes from the despotic cartel made up by the major football conferences, which seek to hoard the millions of dollars in bowl revenue for themselves -- and depend on the tax-exempt status they lobby for in Washington. Here are the names of the college leaders on the BCS Presidental Oversight Committee: Chairman David Frohnmayer (Oregon), Rev. John Jenkins (Notre Dame), Robert Khayat (Mississippi), Mark Nordenberg (Pittsburgh), John Peters (Northern Illinois), Harvey Perlman (Nebraska), Graham Spanier (Penn State) and Charles Steger (Virginia Tech).

These individuals preside over a commercial swindle. According to the Wall Street Journal, the bowls have become a $400 million-a-year industry, and bowl executives earn salaries of between $400,000 and $500,000. The bowls no longer serve any discernable educational purpose -- the participating teams often have graduations rates worse than 50 percent, for which they are rewarded with extravagance. Players in this year's BCS bowls received gifts such as Tourneau watches, Apple iPods and $300 worth of Sony electronics.

Take away their tax exemptions. Hand the BCS college presidents a bunch of 1120 forms and tell them to start filling them out. They'll buckle.

Additionally, we recommend that the college football season be shortened. Schools begin playing in phony made-for-TV money games in August and the championship isn't decided until the second week in January. A season should begin in autumn and end on New Year's Day, so that everyone can get back to school.

2. Declare freshmen ineligible. Three-quarters of the ills and corruptions in the NCAA would be cured by this simple measure, which was healthily in effect until 1972. Freshman ineligibility would not eradicate illegal recruiting, but it would lessen the temptation to cheat and force schools to make greater commitment to the education of blue-chippers. Hand in hand with the rules of the NBA and NFL, which forbid entry straight out of high school, it would force athletes to spend at least two years on a college campus. For decades, colleges and universities competed just fine without freshmen. Make them sit out a year and learn where the classrooms are.

3. This one is more personal, sir. Sometimes, presidents can change things simply by example, rather than through legislation. No more playing golf in cargo shorts and anklets. We insist. Presidents should play golf in dapper and manly attire, such as slacks, collared shirts and calf-length socks. Not those dainty things that look like you took them from Malia's drawer. Uphold the dignity of your office.

4. Invite Candace Parker to a game of one-on-one in the White House gym, in front of the cameras. Help showcase the richly deserving game of women's basketball, in which the coaches are still genuine educators and a college scholarship is still meaningful; 81 percent of the women who play college basketball graduate. It's the purer form of the game, and it's becoming a beautiful one now that talent like Parker's is rising to the rim. Yet college programs still lack funding and attendance, and too many WNBA franchises are struggling for financial survival. Tell the American public that there is no such thing as a men's game and a women's game -- there is only one game. Basketball is basketball.

5. Insist that "The Star Spangled Banner" be played in tune at every sports event you attend. There are too many bad versions of the national anthem.

6. Save tennis. Pick up a racket, and demonstrate that basketball is not the only game played on a court with a net. Once, great American champions sprang up from public courts like wildflowers, icons such as Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. Then manufacturing companies overpriced rackets and the sport gained a reputation as expensive and hard to teach. In Europe, it remains a common pursuit, and look at the result. Make American tennis a game of the people again. Venus and Serena can't do it alone.

7. Push the NCAA to return the Final Four to arenas, instead of domes. The game is meant to be played in gymnasiums, not immense geodesic structures that could be used as space stations. The dome experience affects the quality of play and ruins the event for spectators. Players come out flat, unable to hear the crowd noise or tell where the ceiling and walls are. Also, there is something demoralizing about a half-full building meant to hold 40,000. The intimacy of the game is lost. It's been 12 years since the NCAA first started the dome experiment. End it.

8. Fight for equal pay in women's sports. Issue a public statement that Pat Summitt should never make a dime less than the men's coach at Tennessee for the rest of her career. If state officials balk, threaten to cut off their pork. Volunteers men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl is in only his fourth season at Tennessee and never has been past the Sweet 16, yet he makes more than twice what Summitt makes -- an average of $2.3 million a year, plus a retention bonus of $1.5 million. Summitt is in her 35th season at Tennessee and has won eight national championships, graduated 100 percent of her players who have completed their eligibility and is closing in on 1,000 career victories. Along the way, she has been a feminist pioneer in the face of gale-force resistance. Yes, men's basketball creates more revenue, but Summitt's program brings in huge bucks, too, and delivers irreplaceable goodwill, prestige and integrity to the university. What should you pay someone for uplifting fully half of the American population?

9. Pardon Marion Jones. It's a despicable fact that a black woman is the only person in the Balco steroids investigations to serve any significant time in prison. A martinet of a judge gave Jones six months for lying to investigators. Meanwhile, the lowlife Balco chemist got half her sentence and baseball drug dealer Kirk Radomski got only probation. That's vengeance, not justice. Make it right, Mr. President.

10: Summon Daniel Snyder to the Oval Office and gently suggest he hire a general manager for the Redskins, for the good of all. How much longer must the people of the nation's capital suffer dispiriting mediocrity?

You will note that most of these suggestions concern college or amateur sports. We'll have to wait for your second term to tackle the pros.

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