Obama, like Nixon, committed sports error

by Jim Longworth

American presidents have been linked to athletic achievement ever since George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac (it was actually a small piece of slate tossed across the Rappahanock, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story). Lincoln was an accomplished wrestler. Grant was an expert equestrian. Teddy Roosevelt excelled in boxing. Truman popularized power walking. Nixon, Ford and Reagan played real football in college, while Kennedy played touch with Marilyn Monroe. Eisenhower was an avid golfer. Jimmy Carter ran track at Annapolis. Bush the elder was a baseball stand-out at Yale, and George W loved cycling. Clinton was a jogger and Barack Obama plays pick-up basketball.

Once in office, presidents also occasionally rub shoulders with accomplished athletes. Who could ever forget Reagan’s visit to Daytona on the day Richard Petty won his 200 th race. The video of No. 43 circling the track as Air Force One landed in the background is one of the most memorable images in sports history. Rarely, though does a commander in chief ever interfere in a pro sport. Yet that’s what happened 30 years ago, and it happened again last week. The former incident ended in disaster, and the latter could follow suit.

Halfway into the 1971 season, the Washington Redskins were on a two-game losing streak when Head Coach George Allen asked his longtime friend President Richard Nixon to attend a practice session and motivate the team. Nixon was all too happy to oblige, and at one point was even allowed to call a play for the offense. Appropriately it was a trick play, a reverse to the wide receiver, and it worked. Allen later told reporters that he admired the president because he had “come back and won after being beaten twice.” But sometimes comebacks can fail, and cause collateral damage in their wake.

Legend has it that during the Skins’ subsequent playoff game against the 49ers, Nixon phoned in a play to Allen, once again calling for his infamous trick reverse. Sure enough, George ran the reverse to his wide receiver, only this time, the play failed miserably, and Washington lost the game. A few years later Nixon resigned in disgrace and Allen was fired. Obviously the playoff incident did not directly cost either man his job, but no one can deny the power of bad karma.

Fast forward to 2010. During the first two months of the BP oil spill, President Obama was constantly criticized for being disengaged. Instead of taking decisive action to deal with the gulf disaster, he spent much of his time in sports-related activities, including playing golf no less than seven times. On day seven of the spill, Obama hosted the New York Yankees. On day 14 he hosted the Navy football team. On day 28, he hosted the UCONN women’s basketball squad. And on day 38 he hosted national champion Duke men’s basketball team. On day 58 he finally met with BP’s chairman to see what was being done to clean up the worst oil spill in history.

A few months later, after the oil well was finally capped, the president’s party lost 60 seats in the midterm election, and his popularity plummeted to an all-time low. Apparently, though, Obama didn’t learn a lesson from his bad BP sports karma, because by year’s end, he injected himself into an NFL matter. Obama used his bully pulpit to praise Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving convicted felon Michael Vick a second chance. The president’s validation of an animal abuser sent political analyst Tucker Carlson into a rage, saying that Vick should have been executed for his crimes. Even Obama supporter, columnist Morris O’Kelly (an African American) scolded the president for his support of Vick.

In 2010, Barack Obama gave his liberal base plenty of reasons to abandon him, including extending Bush tax cuts to millionaires, continuing the war in Afghanistan and failing to provide leadership on the gulf spill. But his latest misstep with Vick might have been the last straw for Democrats and for all animal lovers. Like it or not, the president will now be linked with a quarterback who burned and hanged dogs. The irony is that, come 2012, the man who celebrated a second chance for Vick, might not get one himself.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).