In his last words, in his last fancy White House ceremony, in his last week as the commander-in-chief, President Obama chose to spend three minutes articulating why sports matter.
Behind him stood the Cubs, from his adopted home town of Chicago, continuing to celebrate their first championship in 108 years. The scene served as the perfect goodbye for sports’ most loyal president. After his eight years of running the country while peeking at athletic highlights, after he honored champion on top of champion and befriended superstar on top of superstar, after he played more golf while in office than any president since Dwight Eisenhower and altered the White House tennis court to include basketball, Obama’s stately relationship with these games had to conclude with a most unlikely visitor: the team that broke the longest, cruelest sports curse.
“They said this day would never come,” Obama said Monday to begin his remarks.
But his final words resonated the most. He spoke off the cuff, looking at everyone packed into a swelling East Room and using his trademark slow, methodical delivery, sounding as if every word arrived with “fragile” written on it.
“It is worth remembering — because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’ — throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” Obama said. “Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game, and it is celebration, but there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”
Later in his closing words, he said: “And I was in my home town of Chicago on Tuesday for my farewell address, and I said, ‘Sometimes, it’s not enough just to change laws. You’ve got to change hearts.’ And sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t. And sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.”
For me, it was a life- and career-affirming moment. I was standing there on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, watching the first president who has ever looked like me speak to some of the reasons I chose to write about sweaty folks for a living. There are those who are indifferent to sports, or cynical about them, and they dismiss any notion of significance. So it was powerful to hear Obama remind us one more time that you can value games without fear of infecting society with frivolity.
Obama doesn’t play down his reputation as the Sports President. The hoops junkie has expressed interest in being a part-owner of an NBA team. In March 2016, he teased Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about American hockey teams winning the past 22 NHL championships, saying, “Where’s the Stanley Cup right now? I’m sorry. Is it in my home town with the Chicago Blackhawks? In case you Canadians were wondering, where is it?” He went to Cuba and sat with Raúl Castro for an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team.
In November, after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Obama used a sports analogy, asking people to “think of this job as being a relay runner,” to explain why he would assist in a smooth transition of power despite his adversarial relationship with Trump. He also hasn’t shied from giving his opinion on everything in the sports world from the Washington Redskins’ name to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. He even publicized his NCAA tournament brackets.
Before the Minnesota Timberwolves played the Washington Wizards about two weeks ago, Coach Tom Thibodeau took his team to the White House. Thibodeau is the former coach of Obama’s beloved Chicago Bulls. The president met with the Timberwolves and told them they need to play better defense.
“It was a presidential order,” Thibodeau declared, laughing.
After The Post’s Dave Sheinin finished covering the U.S. Olympic teams’ White House visit in September, he exited just as basketball legend Julius Erving was arriving. Sports stars have never felt so connected to the president. Remember when Michelle Obama video-bombed the Miami Heat? Remember the video of Obama giving Steph Curry shooting lessons?
Celebrities are fascinated with celebrities, and Obama has long been a rock star in addition to a leader. But these relationships have been more than just schmoozing. Athletes have become more involved in their communities and more vocal about social issues, and Obama has been an influential figure in their willingness to be more engaged.
“It is surreal,” LeBron James said of his connection with Obama. “Never in a million years did I think I would be this close with a president of the United States, with the number one biggest position of power in the world. We just have a real, genuine relationship. We’ve got so many things in common we can talk about, not only from sports but community service and growing up in the inner city and figuring out ways that we can help the youth.”
The White House visit has become an American sports tradition, and regardless of who’s in charge, it’s always a special moment for the champion being honored. But that doesn’t mean every ceremony is as comfortable as Obama’s events.
Former NFL coach Mike Holmgren first went to the White House after the San Francisco 49ers won in 1989. He was an offensive coordinator then, and he took one of his daughters, Calla, with him. When President George H.W. Bush shook Holmgren’s hand, the coach recalls him saying, “Mike, you like ’em kinda young, huh?”
Barbara Bush interrupted.
“George, that’s his daughter!” she exclaimed.
Obama always seems to avoid awkward interactions, however. On Monday, he managed to celebrate the Cubs while proudly declaring his Chicago White Sox fandom. Even when Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, joked about giving Obama a “midnight pardon” and allowing him to join the first lady on the Cubs’ side, Obama knew exactly what to say.
“Do know that, among Sox fans, I am the Cubs’ number one fan,” Obama said.
“Even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series, but I did say that there has never been anything false about hope,” Obama also said. “Hope — the audacity of hope. Yes, we can.”
To which the Cubs-loving audience responded, “Yes, we did.”
To which sports nuts can now grin and pinch themselves, just to be certain about the fun thing that happened the past eight years: The POTUS really did lead wearing one of those big foam fingers.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.