On Monday, just five days before he passed the keys to the Oval Office over to President-elect Donald Trump, President Barack Obama hosted one last championship-winning sports team in the White House: The Chicago Cubs.
It was an undeniably special moment for Obama, a Chicago native (albeit a White Sox fan), to be able to honor the Cubs and celebrate the end of the team’s 108-year championship drought before he stepped down from his position as leader of the free world.
Obama was an avid sports fan, something he was often criticized for during his time in office. But he never lost sight of the fact that sports, while entertaining, are hardly trivial, something he emphasized during the ceremony with the Cubs, as reported by Tyler Tynes of SB Nation:
“It is worth remembering, because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well why’re you spending time on sports there’s other stuff going on,’” Obama says. “Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle, but, ultimately, made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.”
“It is a game. It is celebration. But, there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and then the city being able to come together and work together in one spirit,” Obama says.
Obama will be remembered for many things — the Affordable Care Act; the declining unemployment rate; marriage equality; and some questionable tech and foreign policy decisions. But his legacy should also reflect that through the ups and downs, he remained steadfastly committed to using sports as a way to push society forward — something that we should particularly appreciate given what lies ahead.
Here are a few of our favorite moments when Obama masterfully combined the sports and political spheres.
When he showed unwavering support to LGBT athletes and trolled Russia in the process
While there is still a long way to go when it comes to ending homophobia in sports, there were significant strides taken the last few years, and Obama was publicly cheering on that progress as it happened.
In 2013, when NBA veteran Jason Collins became the first active member of a top U.S. men’s sport to come out as gay, Obama called Collins and said that he was “very proud” of him. And when football player Michael Sam came out before the NFL draft the following year, Obama tweeted out his congratulations.
Congratulations on leading the way, @MikeSamFootball. That's real sportsmanship.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 10, 2014
He also recognized the trailblazing openly gay soccer player Robbie Rogers when the Los Angeles Galaxy visited the White House to celebrate its MLS Cup championship, and made a huge statement in 2014 when he refused to attend the Sochi Olympics due to Russia’s anti-gay law, and sent a delegation full of LGBT athletes in his place, including tennis legend Billie Jean King.
When he tried to ban building sports stadiums with federal tax money
NFL star Richard Sherman thinks it’s ridiculous that taxpayers have to pay for stadiums that benefit billionaires, and President Obama agrees.
In his budget proposal in 2015, Obama offered to end the tax exemption that helps fuel most of those horrible deals. Of course, Congress never approved Obama’s budget proposal, but still, it was nice to see him take aim at a loophole that is exploiting so many tax payers and sports fans.
When he gave a shout-out to ‘Equal Play, Equal Pay’
In the last year, women’s tennis players found themselves as targets of sexist, demeaning comments by top tennis officials wondering if they really deserved equal pay, and members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) began an “Equal Play, Equal Pay” campaign highlighting the pay differential
During a speech on Equal Pay Day, Obama showed support for the importance of all women — including pro soccer players and pro tennis players — to receive equal pay.
“Equal pay for equal work should be a fundamental principle of our economy,” Obama said. “It’s the idea that whether you’re a high school teacher, a business executive, or a professional soccer player or tennis player, your work should be equally valued and rewarded, whether you are a man or a woman.”
That’s not the only time he has championed female athletes, either. When the USWNT visited the White House to celebrate their World Cup victory, Obama made waves when he said, “Playing like a girl means you’re a badass.”
When he pushed the Washington NFL team to change its name
Obama might have lived in Washington, D.C. for the past eight years, but he never did become a fan of the local football team’s name.
The President became the most prominent member of the #changethemascot club when he came out against Washington’s “Redskins” nickname in 2013.
“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama told the Associated Press.
He was the first sitting president to speak out against the name, and his voice only grew stronger on the issue as the years passed.
When he talked about his own history with concussions
There is still a lot of research to be done about concussions and their correlation with traumatic brain injuries, and scientists who are studying the role of sports had an ally in the Obama White House.
His administration hosted a summit on concussions in youth sports, and Obama even opened up about his own experience with concussions when he was a football player. During an interview with The New Republic shortly after his second inauguration, he told the magazine that “if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
When he advocated for better treatment of NCAA student-athletes
President Obama is a fan of several sports, but it’s no secret that his first love is basketball. He had a court installed on the White House grounds, and every spring since 2009, he has filled out a bracket before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (the annual ritual on ESPN even had it’s own name: Baracketology).
He was more than a fan of college athletics, too. During an interview with The Huffington Post in 2015, Obama called on Division I conferences to do more to protect their athletes, saying that athletic scholarships should be guaranteed even if a player is injured or otherwise cut from a team.
Obama Calls On NCAA To Rethink The Way It Protects And Punishes AthletesWASHINGTON — Weighing in on the growing debate over amateurism in college sports, President Barack Obama said on…www.huffingtonpost.comHe stopped short of calling for top-tier college athletes to be paid though. “In terms of compensation, I think the challenge would just then start being, do we really want to just create a situation where there are bidding wars?” he said.
When he criticized the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic assault
Among the NFL’s many transgressions, the league’s bungled response to the Ray Rice scandal—and to subsequent instances of domestic abuse committed by players—is perhaps the biggest. By speaking about the incident during an interview with ESPN, President Obama made sure that the conversation about domestic violence didn’t simply fade out of memory.
“There has been a little bit of an old boys network in terms of how [the NFL] operates.”
“There has been a little bit of an old boys network in terms of how [the NFL] operates,” Obama said on ESPN Radio’s “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.” “There have been some blind spots that are rooted not just in pro football but dating back to college football and certain behaviors have been tolerated historically that really should not have been tolerated. Hopefully this is a wake-up call.”
When he lifted up our Muslim athletes as sports heroes
President Obama would often use sports as a gateway into more difficult conversations about race, religion and diversity in general. When Donald Trump launched racist attacks on Muslims during the 2016 campaign, President Obama responded by reminding Americans that Muslims are, among other things, our sports heroes.
Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
“Muslim Americans enrich our lives today, in every way,” said Obama during a February 2016 visit to a Mosque in Baltimore. “They’re the sports heroes we cheer for like Mohammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon. And by the way, when Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue will be a fencing champion wearing her hijab.”
That fencing champion is Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first Muslim American to compete for Team USA in the Olympics while wearing a hijab.