Football Politics: Presidents & The Super Bowl

President Barack Obama prepares to throw a football in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 8, 2010.

Despite nearly fifty years of the vastly expanded focus of the entire nation on the annual Super Bowl game, none of the ten Presidents who have served since the first one, in 1967, have ever attended. For over a century now, Presidents have thrown out the first pitch to open the baseball season, but the closest a Chief Executive has come to anything analogous for the crescendo of the football season took place in 1985, when Ronald Reagan tossed the coin to determine which team would kick off first for Super Bowl XIX. Although it was viewed live by millions simultaneously by satellite, the President was securely ensconced in the Oval Office when he did it.

Joe Namath rabidly opposed LBJ’s Vietnam War policy

Before it was fully-blown as the national but unofficial Pop Culture holiday it has become, however, something happened which may have raised concern for any President who considered making such an appearance. Not officially called the “Super Bowl” until the game was in its third year, in 1969, Lyndon Baines Johnson was ending his presidency just as the annual game was becoming an anticipated tradition. Super Bowl III took place on January 12, 1969, just eight days before President Johnson left the presidency. Among the players of the New York Jets, facing the Baltimore Colts, one emerged with such charismatic and controversial appeal that he crossed from great athlete into full-blown celebrity. His name was Joe Namath. Famously, Namath had made what many initially considered an outlandish brag that his skill would “guarantee” a Jets win–and then delivered a 16-7 victory. With the global media focus which came to him overnight, however, his sharp defense of those protesting LBJ’s Vietnam War policy which proved humiliating to the outgoing Chief Executive: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

President Ford about to snap the center in November 1974 with a football he signed that was auctioned off to benefite a Portland Oregon museum.

The only President who was actually offered National Football League contracts from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, and turned them down to become Yale’s assistant football coach as a gateway into its law school, not only turned down offers to attend the Super Bowl but resisted exploiting his past to gain a political upper-hand. He had no reason to be modest. A high school football team captain, Gerald R. Ford had played center on the University of Michigan football team, where he earned All-American football honors and was a three-year letter winner. His team led undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933, and he was voted the Wolverines’ most valuable player in 1934. That year, in a game against the University of Chicago, Ford tackled down halfback and future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger. Almost 70 years later, the former President, then in his 90s, still vividly recalled the tackle because, “I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it.” The following year, 1935, Ford played one professional game, as part of a Collegiate All-Stars team in an exhibition game against the Chicago Bears. Even in his retirement years, whenever Ford visited his alma mater, he took in games, had dinner with the players and joined in their huddles.

Carter at his reception for Pittsburgh’s baseball and football teams.

Jimmy Carter was the first former President to attend a Super Bowl game, but a footnote regarding him as President and the big game was less than noteworthy. In the same period of the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Dallas Cowboys game of Super Bowl XIII, Carter was increasing besieged by crises out of his control and belittled even by those within his own party. Although he watched the game at Camp David, in private, his popular and sassy mother “Miss Lillian” let it slip before the game that he’d made a modest bet of five dollars in favor of the Cowboys against her Steelers surety. Adding insult to injury, he lost. A year later, at a February 1980 White House reception for Pittsburgh’s baseball and football teams, Carter revealed evidenece of his allegd preference for baseball: “Four times in the last 10 years the Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl,”  he read from his notes, then quipped in an aside, “I’ve forgotten how many times they won…”

George H. Bush on the field with Cleveland Browns quarterback before a November 2011 game against the Houston Texan

George H. Bush holds the record for attending more Super Bowl games than any other man who held the presidency – but he did so once as Vice President, on January 24, 1982, watching the Cincinnati Bengals fall to the San Francisco 49ers at Super Bowl XVI, and once as a former President, joining his fellow former, Bill Clinton, at a 2005 pre-game show in their joint effort to raise emergency funds for victims of the Indonesian tsunami.

Reagan tosses the ball during a South Lawn celebration for the 1988 Super Bowl winners and hometown team of the Washington Redskins.

Reagan in his role as football legend George Gipper.

With viewership in the multiple millions, a Super Bowl potentially offers a President a far larger national audience watching and listening to him than one might usually during the annual State of the Union Address. As advertising and marketing, global capitalism and generally flashing 80s entertainment all converged to begin making the Super Bowl the national event it has become, in stepped just the President to make the most of it – Ronald Reagan. Beginning his eight year presidency on the same day as Super Bowl XIV, January 20, 1981, the former actor not only understood football as a sport from having played for Eureka College but how it was envisioned in the imagination, from having called plays as a sports radio announcer which he didn’t always witness, and as a sentimental symbol, from having played legendary football player of Notre Dame, George “The Gipper” in the film Knute Rockne, All American (19tk). To that end, Reagan began appearing on television either just before or after the big game, whether it was an NBC interview with Tom Brokaw about football or several live-simulcast telephone calls to congratulate the teams.

Clinton, left, and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne show off Cornhuskers football jersey during a ceremony honoring NU as the NCAA college football co-champions in 1997.

Bill Clinton was similarly innovative in making good use of what had become a full-blown holiday by the time he became President, starting the custom of inviting special guests to join and watch the Super Bowl at a White House party and maintaining the custom through his eight years. Unlike Reagan, however, rather than use the Super Bowl to make a political statement, humorous or otherwise, Clinton sought out political figures with regional association to the competing teams. The custom of making the White House Super Bowl Party a political event, however, developed accidentally; the Dallas Cowboys took on the Buffalo Bills in 1993’s Super Bowl XXVII just hours before he and Hillary Clinton were already long-scheduled to host their first official dinner,  for governors attending the annual Governor’s Conference. Thus Clinton invited the governors who represented the teams’ states, Ann Richards of Texas and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.

To enjoy lots of the same food favorites of Presidents and First Ladies and create a composite White House Super Bowl Party menu, check out this second post here:

George W. Bush kicks a 15-yarder at Army-Navy football game.

George W. Bush amped the use of White House Super Bowl Party guest list to serve international purposes, inviting Iraqi exile and anti-Saddam Hussein activist Kanan Makiya to the White House to watch Super Bowl XXVII in 2003, just eight weeks before Bush ordered the American invasion of Iraq with the stated invention of overthrowing Saddam’s regime.

Like Reagan before him and Obama after him, “W.” made good use of some pre-game air time to transmit a political message. For Bush, it was to condemn the use of steroids in professional sports and the need for a national oversight of the increasing problem.

For Reagan, it was anti-communist rhetoric, although in one post-game televised victory call, his remarks were read and came off as a corny stretch of the imagination intended to suggest that members of the winning Super Bowl teams threatened the Soviet Union because they feared the players would be fired at Moscow instead of MX missiles.

For Obama, it was the hope that the New Orleans Saints would defeat the Indianapolis Colts in 2010 because, as he said, “when I think about what’s happened to New Orleans over the last several years [2005’s Hurricane Katrina] and how much that team means to them…I’m pretty sympathetic.’’

President Obama presides over White House Chicago Bears celebration – delayed since 1985.

Obama playing with football in the outer office of his personal secretary..

Obama also had the chance to host perhaps the most unique of Super Bowl-related events in the White House in October of 2011, which he called, “as much fun as I will have as President.” It was a visit which had been promised to Obama’s own home team, the Chicago Bears upon their winning the 1985 Super Bowl, but the day after the team had been celebrated throughout the sub-zero Windy City, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. The planned White House was postponed – indefinitely. As he described in his speech, “But shortly after I took office, someone at the NFL realized, hey, there’s a Bears fan living in the White House. And they called my staff and asked if we could make this happen. And so today, I am proud to say to the players, to the coaches, to the staff of the 1985 Bears: Welcome to the White House for this well-deserved and long-overdue recognition.” Although Presidents traditionally resist offering their support to one team or the other, Barack Obama has been forthright from the beginning that he will become the first President to attend the Super Bowl – if the Bears from his hometown of Chicago are to play in a Super Bowl. Obama may be the most avid football fan among Presidents within memory, but none can compare to Richard Nixon.

Nixon at a Rams vs. Chiefs game in LA, 1969. (Corbis)

President Nixon attending a 1969 college football game between the Texas Longhorns and Arkansas Razorbacks.

Nixon had almost a savant perception of football as a strategist’s art, but also saw the larger metaphors to be drawn from the sport for any given challenge. All during the dramatic rises and falls of his political career, Nixon assumed a combative “never give up philosophy” that he attributed to football. A personal friendship with Washington Redskins coach George Allen,  whom he frequently called to suggest play the coach should call, Nixon found his loyalty in conflict during Super Bowl VI when the Redskins faced the Miami Dolphins, where the President had a winter home. Finally, he told the New York Times,  “I always root for the home team. And my home now is in Washington.’’ In the centennial year of college football, Nixon also helicoptered into Arkansas to attend an Arkansas-Texas state college game. Three days after that,  in December 1969, President Nixon addressed the the National Football Foundation’s  Hall of Fame Dinner.

After making reference to three earlier Presidents who had loved football as much as he did (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Nilson and Dwight Eisenhower), Nixon used football to point out some philosophies he believed it inculcated in people:

“What does this mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back• It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself. All of these great factors are essential if a nation is to maintain character and greatness for that nation.”


Categories: Presidents, Sports

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4 replies »

  1. dear Sir, im curious about a “Football & Kennedy” connection, since their home games of touch football are famous, but it seem not to be mentioned here – i believe the President and AG attended many times the famous clash of NAVY -vs- ARMY (although they were also keen on baseball – boby kennedy & mickey mantel photo pops to mind).


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