Last night, I finally got around to listening to the B.S. Report podcast in which Bill Simmons, longtime writer for ESPN, Editor-in-Chief of Grantland, and total Boston sports homer, interviewed President Obama about his views on sports, his experiences with the professional sports world as President, and the identity of the best Wire character. Okay, that last part was a throw-away at the end, but the rest of the podcast was well worth 25 minutes of your time. You can listen to the podcast here, or read the transcript here.
When asked to identify the best championship team visit of his presidency, Obama talked about the 1985 Chicago Bears team, who visited the White House in 2011 because their original celebratory visit was scheduled on the same day of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. But then, when asked what the most fun visit was, Obama specifically mentioned the visit by the UConn Huskies Women’s Basketball team in 2009. ”[W]hen Maya Moore and the Connecticut Huskies came, we actually went down to my little basket down here and we played a game of HORSE.” The next year, when the Huskies won again, Obama said, “during the entire season, I just kept on repeating – and I truly believe – this was the best team in all of sports, any sport, any gender, by far.”
I want to give Obama credit here for two things: one, for discussing a women’s sports team visit as one of the sports highlights of his first term (which includes numerous opening pitches and other exciting events), and two, for publicly stating that women’s sports can be incredibly valuable. We already knew that Obama filled out a bracket for both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, but selecting the Huskies’ visit as a highlight shows his actual recognition of the importance of women’s sports.
Later in the interview, Simmons asked Obama about substitute coaching his daughter’s basketball game, and Obama opined about the advancements in women’s sports in his lifetime:
You just want them to win so bad. And when they actually run a play and it works — [laughter] — you’re just ecstatic. And a couple of heartbreaking losses and you’re just feeling terrible. But they’re wonderful. And what’s great is that women’s athletics, girls’ athletics, I think makes all the difference in the world. I’m 50 now, so I went to high school in the ’70s. We actually went to — I went to a school that had a strong women’s sports team. But it was still not the norm for a lot of girls to participate in a lot of sports teams, and now it’s just second nature. And they’re healthier for it. They learn competition. They learn how to bounce back from adversity. It’s just — it’s a terrific thing to see. And they’ve got so many role models now because there are so many unbelievable female athletes out there, and they can see that there’s no contradiction between them being strong and tough and beautiful and confident. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to see.
There’s a good argument to be made that no presidency has ever done as much for the public perception of women’s sports as the Obama presidency. Sure, we can talk about President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, which required all entities receiving federal contracts to end discrimination in hiring – including on the basis of sex, which was not listed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (it only included race, color and national origin.) We can also talk about Title IX (and I’m sure we will), and the changes it brought to the academic landscape. But Obama’s support of his daughters’ sports pursuits provides an incredible example to fathers, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has put healthy activity and nutrition at the forefront of the White House’s policy work.
By actively encouraging sports participation in girls, Obama is setting up the future for women’s involvement in professional sports. The more that girls are encouraged to play sports, the more they’ll want to keep playing, and the more opportunities they will demand. How encouraging that our President, the father of two daughters, is helping them (and us) see that women’s sports have an equal place in the sports landscape.