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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with Matthew Andrews, sports and American history professor

Matthew Andrews is a UNC sports historian who studies the links between athletics and American culture and history. He earned his doctorate from Chapel Hill in 2009 and currently serves as an advisor and lecturer for the Department of History. 

Staff writer Ziyad Habash interviewed Andrews in anticipation of the event at Bull's Head Bookstore today by Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff on his book,"The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Barack Obama." 

The Daily Tar Heel: What are the links between high-level politics and sports?

Matthew Andrews: The links are long standing and persistent, so I teach a course called "Sport and American History," and in this course we talk about the links between politicians and athleticism, politicians and displays of power, and I go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and then actually a little bit further, to ancient Egypt when pharaohs demonstrated their athletic prowess. 

We talk about the idea of the citizen soldier in ancient Greece and how politicians would link themselves to certain chariot racers, so there is a long tradition of this. In the United States — I guess it goes back to Teddy Roosevelt — the president at the start of the 20th century who is explicitly making these arguments that sports prepare young men to be leaders, particularly strenuous sports like football and boxing, and coincidentally, Roosevelt played football and was a boxer at Harvard. So the idea is that the physical prowess — this force, power, this martial spirit, and all the things you learn in sports, the masculinity — all of these things prepare you to govern. 

DTH: And Hillary Clinton isn’t playing basketball.

MA: Certainly, it raises the question 'Is there an activity that Hillary will shine a light on?' It is interesting, and look, Hillary Clinton came of age in a time when women were not allowed to play sports. So perhaps female politicians in the future, who grew up post-Title IX, will have to display their own athletic credentials. 

DTH: If sports are a display of power, as the presidency is now interested primarily in basketball, what nationwide shifts of power does that speak of?

MA: Certainly, football is the sport that lots of presidents have played — Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower. Very famously, Eisenhower was an excellent football player at Army.

DTH: Did Nixon play rugby? There is a photo of him where it is hard to tell which sport he is playing.

MA: It was football. I actually have the picture on my front door. Additionally, Gerald Ford was a great football player, he was an All-American at the University of Michigan.

DTH: Is there a gladiator element in football too — that just doesn't exist in baseball and basketball?

MA: Yes, football is the sport most easily linked to militarism. There is an idea that the leader, the president, needs to have a martial and militaristic sense, after all they are the commander and chief, right? So there is a natural link there. 

Presidents link themselves to baseball, which is the great democratic game. It the most popular sport around beginning with William Howard Taft in 1910, throwing out the first pitch, and I mean since then every single president has thrown out a first pitch at an All-Star game or opening game. They have to do it. Interestingly, Reagan was the one to stop throwing out the first pitch from the stands and insist on doing it from the pitchers mound and since then every president has followed Reagan’s lead. 

So, Obama has come in an age where basketball is becoming more popular, maybe outpacing is outpacing baseball — though not football. I’ve been told that Obama is the first president that could dunk. I would say that Obama is indicative of a shifting interest toward basketball and away from baseball.

DTH: America has been a very white country in the past. In the future, there with be Hispanic, African-American and white interest balanced against each other, along with a new generation of more prominent female politicians. In that much more Balkanized landscape, what do you see the role of sports becoming?

MA: What you have to be able to do is argue that the sport you play is quintessentially American. And so baseball, you have that covered. Football, you have that covered. For basketball, I mean that is about as American as it gets. Baseball and football actually have links to games played in England, but basketball was actually invented in the United States, by a Canadian, actually, but the proponents of basketball don't like to talk about that. 

I would imagine the trick is to show why the sport you play is an American sport. This is going to be tough with soccer, though, we are “Johnny-come-lately” as a nation.

DTH: What is an example of a politician using sports to particularly good effect?

MA: Think about what George W. Bush did after 9/11: He goes to Yankee Stadium and throws a pitch, and it is looked at as galvanizing moment for the nation. 

DTH:  So politicians associate with sports as proof of valor. Does that explain the behavior of a figure like Putin?

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MA: It's athleticism. He is flying helicopters, riding whales, wrestling alligators — I don’t know, who knows what to believe with this guy. But what it's saying is, "I am physically fit, and therefore fit to rule."