The past 366 days were an embarrassment of riches for crossover stories featuring politics and sports. And I do mean embarrassment. A few events were unsettling or even disturbing, and a couple were almost creditable, but for the most part, the year in Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff provided us with bemusement and great cause for mockery and ridicule.
Did I just mention mockery and ridicule? Probably the single biggest, most widely covered crossover story featuring sports and politics of the past year was the shamefully horrible 37 rolled by President-elect Barack Obama while scrounging for votes in the Pennsylvania primary. I thought Chris Matthews would never shut up about it (come to think of it, he hasn't, and neither has the rest of the media--so Obama just gave in and invited his bowling partner that day to the Inauguration). Because of the peculiarity of political scheduling, with the long lull preceding Pennsylvania, the mainstream media covered the bowling "story" incessantly for weeks. As an Obama supporter, I was afraid the stupid, excessive, obsessive coverage of the bowling incident might end up having a substantive effect on the election. Until, that is ....
Kuwait. During his Summer tour abroad, Obama addressed a gymnasium full of soldiers in Kuwait. The speech was hardly memorable, the same-old same-old blah-blah boilerplate officials always recite for military audiences. But the crowd, having heard it all so many times before from officials of all rank and party, wasn't interested. They wanted Obama to take a shot at the basket. After much egging on, he reluctantly agreed, defensively trying to pre-empt failure by claiming he might not hit the first shot; he was in street clothes, hadn't warmed up, wasn't expecting to have to shoot the basketball, etc. Then he stepped up to the three-point line and--
Bang. Got it! Yes. It Goes! Swish. Nothing but net! [video]. The shot was so remarkable that it inspired a ridiculously pretentious, overly cerebral, scholarly appreciation in the New Republic, complete with references to 19th-century Sicily. Of course, the only reason I dismiss that appreciation as pretentious is because that's what I would've written if Richard Stern hadn't gotten there first.
And face it, even if you were a supporter of Senator John McCain, you knew, you knew when that ball went through that basket that the election was all over, didn't you? But, sorry to say, basketball's connection to politics wasn't over.
National Basketball Association:
It seemed like every time you turned around, some NBA player was humiliating himself by showing up at some Obama rally somewhere. Chauncy Billups made a surprise appearance in Detroit, possible leading to his trade to the Nuggets, and LeBron James never shut up about it. Here he is with Jay-Z at an Ohio rally in October [video]. There are many more such appearances, up to and including Kareem Abdul Jabbar's inclusion in will.i.am's famous though cringe-inducing schlock video "Yes, We Can."
But basketball and politics also included a very puzzling note, as then-injured Portland Trailblazer big man Greg Oden announced on his "blog" that he was endorsing Barack Obama for President. One of the puzzles about that--besides the fact that at the time Oden had never played a minute in the NBA and was more and more the subject of whispers about his fragility and why do we care what some injured rookie thinks anyway?--is that he made that announcement in preparation for an appearance a couple of days later with First Lady of the United States Laura Bush. But what the heck, as the accompanying official photograph seems to indicate, she didn't mind. From what I understand, by the way, persons in that photo are shown to scale. Greg Oden is a really big big man. Not too tough, I guess, but big. But you know who is tough?
Major League Baseball:
Curt Schilling. Uncharacteristically, the political year in baseball began on a note of class and dignity when, in advance of the New Hampshire primary, the New England media markets, in particular the sports channels, were flooded with an ad by(now former?) Red Sox pitcher Schilling cut in support of John McCain. I thought at the time that it was the best celebrity endorsement ad of this political cycle and saw nothing subsequent to make me alter that judgment. Had McCain run more Schilling type ads and fewer Paris Hilton ads, he might have ... lost by three points instead of seven.
But never fear! The baseball crossover soon deteriorated into one of the most idiotic and shameful crossover stories of the year as former Red Sox pitcher Roger "Rocket" Clemens decided his best chance to salvage his legacy was to testify before a Congressional Committee about accusations of steroid use. Other than the fact that the event ended up revealing his dirty-old-man affair with country singer Mindy McCready during her teen years and the fact that just last week a Grand Jury convened to indict Clemens for perjury in connection with his testimony, things went okay.
I think Clemens wanted to have it both ways--he wanted the credibility that he might earn from testifying under oath, but he didn't want the grilling that came with the credibility. President-elect Barack Obama wanted it both ways, too. Near the end of both the baseball and campaign seasons, Obama cringingly implied to fans in two critical swing states, Florida and Pennsylvania, that he supported their team during the National League Championship Series. Ouch! That could've been fatal to his chances for the White House, although in the end it turned out voters in both states cared more about the future of the country than what team some politician says he roots for. Especially since his hometown Chicago Cubs had just a couple of days earlier dispiritedly lost in the National League playoffs.
You would think that a Chicago public figure insulting the Cubs would be bad business, but the fact that Obama is a Southsider and White Sox fan grants him the right to disparage the Chicago Cubs, as he did in this interview with Stuart Scott [video] . Not so, however, for Illinois First Lady Patti Blogojevich, who was captured on tape screaming "[Blank] [the Cubs]!" There's lots of things you can do or say and retain your position in Cook County politics, but that ain't one of them.
But the the baseball highlight of the season for Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff had to be Opening Day at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., where President Bush was booed mercilessly as he made his way to the mound to throw out the first pitch. Intriguingly, three of us seeded the video almost immediately, Jim Dent and Adam Hobson seeding Youtube clips of the television coverage, I seeded Major League Baseball's official coverage. All three clips have since been removed, leaving only cellphone video and such circulating. Hmmmmmmmm.
National Hockey League:
But speaking of booing, the one and only Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff highlight of the NHL season occurred in early October when Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin was lustily booed in Philadelphia [video]. And I do mean lustily. Philadelphia Flyers owner and Republican donor Ed Snider supposedly set it up because of the Hockey Mom stuff rather than the Republican-donor stuff, but the Flyers fans weren't buying in for an instant. However, Sarah Palin herself is in no way responsible for this debacle. Philadelphia fans boo anybody. She actually had a reasonable plan, taking her eight-year-old cute-bomb daughter Piper onto the ice with her. Philly fans wouldn't boo an eight-year-old, would they? Yes, they would. Palin was simply not thinking big enough. She should have gone to center ice holding her Down Syndrome infant son Trig. Philly fans still would have booed, of course, but at least then ever after they'd be known as the fans that would boo a handicapped baby.
In other booing news, George W. Bush was again booed in Beijing, but in a lame, short and barely audible way, not really worth even documenting. He seemed more irrelevant than provocative in China, but there were two things that occurred at the time that can't be ignored.
During the Opening Ceremonies, it turned out, a war commenced between Russia and Georgia. Even though as an observer and analyst I was not in agreement with the Bush Administration’s official response to that event (and as subsequent investigation revealed, the situation was far more ambiguous than the Administration claimed a the time), as an American citizen I can say I was truly unsettled, even disgusted, at the image of Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin going all Alpha-Male on the President of the United States of America in public in full view of cameras broadcasting the most-watched event on the globe last year. That approaches the "My Pet Goat" moment as the image that most reveals Bush's inadequacy as President. (Putin, by the way, dumped his wife this year for a former Olympic gymnast--then shut down the newspaper that reported it. They do Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff for real over there).
But the thing that was most unsettling was the American government's cowardly response to the Chinese regime's denial of a visa to Joey Cheek. I was not and never was in support of an Olympics boycott (although I think authoritarian regimes should be barred from hosting) because I think there's something intrinsically important about the games that should trump international politics, even if some degree of such politics is inevitable. But still. I mean, come on. A Gold-medal winning American Olympic athlete was denied a visa for rankly political reasons (Cheek is a Dafur activist), and the USA's response is . . . NOTHING? A plan to file a protest? Maybe we didn't have to boycott, but weren't there any reciprocal visas we could have cancelled? Something, anything, we could have done to express disapproval and support our own athletes? The State Department's response was pathetic.
Professional (and a little College) Football:
Also regarding the State Department, there was a rumor going around that Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice was in line for the position of CEO of the San Francisco 49ers. Given the course of the Administration she served, however, I'm wondering if her experience might be better suited to running the infamously terrible 0-16 Detroit Lions, officially now the worst team in NFL history. And there was lots of other NFL Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff news.
Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos, for instance, planned an end zone celebration during the Thursday night national game following President-elect Barack Obama's victory. Unfortunately, his teammates stopped him, lest he incur a 15-yard penalty. I say "unfortunately" because the Broncos turned out to be frauds anyway, losing the last game of the season along with three game lead with three games to go, and if they just let Marshall celebrate we might've been spared his ridiculous post-game "philosophy" [video] and gotten to watch him try to explain in an interview why he lost a game by taking a stupid penalty.
Which couldn't have been more silly than the interview McCain gave to Chris Berman on Monday Night Football on the day the Redskins kept their 18-1 Election-prediction string going by losing their last home game before the election, thereby ensuring that the party holding the White House would lose. Asked what he would do if he were King of Sports rather than potential President of the United States, McCain desultorily intoned some boring and predictable litany about steroids, as if we hadn't all heard enough about it and enough wasn't being done about it already. You knew then he knew he'd lost.
Obama, on the other hand, spritely and saliently declared he would impose a college football playoff. Although then and as recently as the day of the championship game a couple of weeks ago Obama took great pains to insist that he was speaking as a fan and had no intention of using his position to advance that agenda, the more I think about it, the more I wonder: Why not? After all, the NCAA itself owes its very existence to the jawboning of President Theodore Roosevelt back in 1905. Moreover, although the Utah Attorney General recently, and Congressman Joe Barton (R, TX) a couple of months ago (after Texas got scah-roooooed by the BCS0, were subjected to much derision for threatening the current college football system with legal action under anti-trust law, or, possibly, new legislation, again I have to ask: Why not? The Bowl Championship Series is obviously (and ironically) anti-competitive and it is the lynchpin of multi-billion-dollar industry encompassing many federal aspects, including national television contracts and funds flowing to or directed away from multiple federally-chartered land-grant universities.
But it seems that the center of football and politics was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers were a such a hotbed of Obama support that one can well understand if Obama, Bears fan though he may be, roots for the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Whereas the owner of the Philadelphia hockey team endorsed the Republicans, Dan Rooney of the Steelers family ownership endorsed Obama (oddly, even as his cousin Tom won a seat in Congress as a Republican. Let's hope the sex-scandal curse on that Florida seat, held in consecutive terms by Mark Foley (R) and Tim Mahoney (D), has ended). Jerome Bettis hopped on the Obama bus too, although he didn't blather on about it much, probably because it would've been too much to have done so while sharing the set with Keith Olberman on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
But the top Steeler in the Obama camp has to be all-time great running back Franco Harris, who, it transpired, was one of only 538 people in the United States of America who actually and truly voted for President: He was an Obama Elector in Pennsylvania, which, to be honest, I think is pretty cool. As a longtime Democratic party activist and donor in Pennsylvania, and having endorsed Obama very early on when it was a political risk to do so, unlike almost everyone else in this compendium, Harris earned his place in politics. Unlike, and finally--
Tiger Woods. In an almost perfect example of a fair-weather fan, at the moment that it would've mattered, Tiger Woods made a point to distance himself from politics. In a little-noted (so obscure that there's no video extant that I can find) press conference during the February '08 Dubai Desert Classic, Woods expressed some measure of irritation when asked about Obama. "Oh God. Here we go," he sputtered as if he were being asked about his sex life. He answered the question as carefully and non-committally as he could, then said nothing else all year .... until the election was over and he could safely expound in the backwash of euphoria. Not only was he positively giddy about Obama in an interview with CNBC's Jane Wells, but he accepted an invitation to speak at the first of the Obama Inauguration ceremonies.
Way to be a frontrunner, Tiger. Not very many people care what you think about this stuff anyway, least of all when you say what you think after it doesn't matter anymore and it's all carefully non-offensive nothing boilerplate anyway. I might've had some respect, at least, had you stepped up before the election like LeBron for Obama or Schilling for McCain. But please. All we care about now is your right knee--and you really shouldn't have put pressure on it climbing those brutal steps at the Lincoln Memorial. Save the politics for when it matters. Just heal your knee and step up to the first tee at Augusta around Income Tax day and rope it down the fairway. By then, you'll probably be pissed off at Obama anyway for raising your taxes.
Well, that's the up-to-the minute rundown of recent Sports 'n' Politics 'n' Stuff. Did I miss anything?