Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
15 January 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

A new global game?

Obama and Sport

By Benjamin Markovits

On the eve of the election, Barack Obama and John McCain were both interviewed on the half-time show of Monday Night Football. Asked the same questions, they differed significantly on only one: if you could change one thing about American sports, what would it be? McCain offered something worthy about sorting out the steroids problem – a politician’s answer. But Obama wanted a college football playoff – a fan’s response. If he gets his way, his first term might just coincide with the invention of something equivalent to the FA Cup.

A strange legacy, because Obama is not only the first black president, but the first president to identify himself primarily as a basketball fan. Reagan played football at college; Bushes Sr and Jr are both baseball men. Clinton did play basketball at Oxford – but only for the B team, where he was distinguished primarily by his ability to show up.

Obama’s basketball credentials are good: his high school team in Hawaii won the state championship. YouTube clips show a player with a decent, if slightly predictable, shake-and-bake move – he tends to go left. He has a nice, easy shooting stroke. The best omens for his presidency? He shows good court vision and runs hard even off the ball.

It’s been widely reported that Obama shook off election-day nerves playing basketball. And various associates, from his personal assistant, Reggie Love, to his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have notable basketball pasts. “Could concerns over his economic recovery plan,” the New York Times asks, “be settled on the free-throw line?”

In Dreams from My Father, Obama writes that “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America and, beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant”. One thing it means is basketball: the dominance of African Americans on the basketball court is so well established that it is hardly remarked on any more. The Washington Wizards, Obama’s new local team, have 15 players on the roster: 13 of them are African American. The other two are white: from the Ukraine and Lithuania.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Basketball is the only native sport America has managed to sell to the world. Baseball and football have some international following, but only basketball could rival soccer as the global game: it’s cheap, simple and beautiful. Obama’s presidency will coincide with aggressive expansion by the National Basketball Association, which hopes to establish a club in Europe inside the next decade. One of the difficulties it faces is the NBA Draft. The American method of divvying up young talent may be too socialist for European employment laws. May we have more such problems.

Content from our partners
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping
Why digital inclusion is a vital piece of levelling up