Ever since Andrew Johnson welcomed the New York Mutuals to the White House in 1867, presidential politics has exploited professional sports. It’s a foolproof way for politicians to show voters they enjoy competition, fair play and are salt-of-the-turf
Sports signifies different things to different voters. Football (JFK) and baseball (George H.W. Bush) are good. Windsurfing (John Kerry) and hunting "varmints" (Mitt Romney)–not always so good. And no candidate should ever bowl in a necktie, unless he can seriously roll.
During the campaign Obama has appeared on sports radio, including a cameo last week on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. He earned cheers from co-host Mike Golic by saying, tongue-in-cheek, "I would have my attorney general investigate the possibility of instituting a college football playoff system through executive order. I’m tired of this nonsense at the end of every college football season."
A month earlier, John McCain made his own ESPN appearance. He’s also known to work the crowds at NASCAR events. But no one in this election uses sports like Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. At times on the campaign trail, sports is her primary form of communication with voters outside of her narrow, Christian fundamentalist base. Communication is critical for Palin, since she mangles the English language so consistently that she’s become the subject of ridicule. Talking sports–whether as a mom on the sidelines of her kids’ hockey games or a as an outdoorswoman who loves to hunt and fish–gives her the opportunity to seem genuine, friendly and accessible.
Palin’s politics may be beyond the fringe, but her sporting interests are effortlessly mainstream. In this sense, she resembles the current occupant of the White House. George W. Bush built his public persona as the owner of the Texas Rangers. When asked for an example of a political mistake, he would speak with a smirk about trading Sammy Sosa. The press and the public let him get away with this blather and the country has been worse off because of it. Palin has the most extensive sports resumé for a politician since former Representative Steve Largent. But unlike Largent, an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver, Palin’s sporting bona fides are more style than substance.
Palin was introduced to the country as "Sarah Barracuda," the former high school point guard who led her team to a state championship, a fact McCain actually uses as an argument to tout her experience.
She is, as Fred Thompson said at the RNC, "The only candidate who can field dress a moose." She worked as a sports reporter for KTUU,
Sarah Palin has made every effort to embody all that is rugged and real. It turns out she is a breathtaking fraud.
Palin speaks about being Joe Six-Pack when in reality she’s Jane Champagne, with a net worth over $1 million. As the Washington Times reported, "A check of financial records…shows the Palins live anything but a common life when compared with their fellow residents of their hometown of Wasilla. Their combined income of nearly a quarter-million dollars last year was five times the median household income for Wasilla’s 7,000 residents. They own a single-engine plane, two boats, two personal watercraft and a half-million-dollar, custom-built home on a lake that is worth three times the average of other homes in town."
Palin spoke at last Thursday’s debate with a collection of folksy "you betchas," but, as conservative Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan pointed out, "Just compare this recording of Palin in Alaska in 2006 to what you heard last night. Ask yourself where the folksiness is. See how many times she " says ‘doggone’ in 2006. Or ‘betcha.’ Or ‘Joe Six-Pack.’
Palin uses sports the same way she uses her looks and language, which have turned the blog corner at National Review into something like the Penthouse Forum. The simple truth that Palin is Bush with lip-gloss, the only difference being that she was a better athlete than the former Yale cheerleader. She is still the same person who was the head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at her high school. FCA is a group whose stated mission is to "use the powerful medium of athletics to impact the world for Jesus Christ." Substitute "politics" for "athletics," and we have Palin. But it isn’t just about spreading the word of God.
It’s about the right-wing edge of the fundamentalist movement that uses sports to mask a political agenda of creationism, bigotry, environmental catastrophe and deregulation. And if that leads to the "end-times," then so it was written. If sports teaches us anything, it’s that you can disguise a lousy competitor for one round, one quarter or one inning, but the truth has a way of making itself known. There is a reason Sarah Palin hasn’t done a press conference. In every conceivable way, she belongs in the minors: strictly Bush league.
About Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the forthcoming A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio’s Edge of Sports Radio.