Meddling in Sports—A Proper Presidential Role?



Barack Obama, presumably with nothing better to do, has intoned that the Augusta National golf club should lift its ban on women, thus allowing female golfers to compete in the famous Masters tournament.

I personally agree with the president that the ban should be lifted, and I would also oppose the ban on African-Americans that was in place as recently as twenty years ago. We might wonder, however, why the president is voicing his opinion on this, and doing so through the auspices of his press secretary.

It would bother me far more if the president threatened some sort of government intrusion to force the golf club to open its doors to women. This would amount to a violation of the club’s private property rights to set its own admission standards.

This raises an interesting point. Many Americans would find it objectionable for the government to go that far to ensure non-discrimination in a private golf organization—or, for that matter, in a male-dominated basketball or hockey league—and yet have no objection to the state forcing integration upon other sorts of private organizations, to say nothing of restaurants, theaters, and other businesses.

Where does this double-standard come from? Now, I understand that the idea of sex discrimination in some private spheres seems more odious than in others. I would probably boycott some businesses if they refused to hire or allow entry to women, but would not do so if such discrimination appeared more integral to the business’s very identity. To take an extreme example, a movie director who refused to even consider women for a male part would not be nearly as offensive to me as a law firm that refused women applicants.

But these distinctions are best made in civil society, not by government. I believe that all private organizations should be allowed to discriminate on whatever basis they want. In some cases, it might make some sense. In others, it might be so stupidly prejudicial that it would damn the institution economically and in the public eye.

It might seem odd that the president would even have an opinion on the rules of this competitive sport, but there is some precedent, at least if we look at the issue broadly.

For better or worse, Teddy Roosevelt deserves lots of credit for the modern institution of American football. In the first decade of the 20th century, a groundswell of agitation was brewing to abolish college football, then the highest level of organized competition featuring the sport. This was mostly a reaction to the dangerousness of the game as practiced. Roosevelt invited leaders of the sport to the White House and convinced them to adopt new rules forbidding mass formations and gang tackling, changing the first-down requirement to ten yards, gracing the line of scrimmage with a new neutral zone, and inventing the forward pass. These rules likely saved the game from abolition and thus are responsible for the sport’s continuing and growing popularity, the eventual creation of the NFL and Superbowl, and every terrible half-time show and one-minute-long Pepsi commercial that have arisen as a result.

Roosevelt’s intervention was much more involved than Obama’s mere statement of opinion on golf, although some locked into the practices of today would probably find Teddy’s reforms completely sensible and Obama’s idea an unnecessary rejection of tradition. In any event, neither is an example of government force coming down to regulate a sport against the private owners’ will.

On the other hand, the steroid witch hunts unleashed on professional baseball over the last decade do qualify as such an intrusion. Although a rule against steroids might make the game better for many fans, the threats of fine and imprisonment and congressional hearings of the Dubya era bothered me more than either Barry or Teddy giving their opinion on how a sport ought to be run.

Yet the latter do have a certain pretension to them, an air of know-it-all nosiness that would understandably irritate many people. I find the lingering obnoxiousness to be a function of Roosevelt’s and Obama’s progressive style of governance. Here we have two presidents characterized by a desire to regulate and regiment all of American life according to their own sense of self-important intelligence. Roosevelt wanted to run the economy, intrude in the labor market, build up the military, and invade any Latin American nation that wasn’t sufficiently deferential to the U.S. His crusade in the Philippines, his Pure Food and Drug Act, his nationalization of land in the name of conservation—to top all of this central planning with a presumptuous intervention, however peaceful, into the rules of football, does seem a bit over the top, just as was Roosevelt’s plan to simplify the spellings of hundreds of English words (for example, Teddy wanted the “ed” in many words to be dropt; Congress refused, although some of these spellings have won out). For Obama, it’s much the same, though on a greater scale perhaps—regulation of the financial markets, banning flavored cigarettes, firing a CEO, bailouts and stimulus, military exercises in half-a-dozen countries, the transformation of the medical sector known as Obamacare, and much more to come in a second term, we are promised—and after all this, to top it all off, the man wants to give his opinion on competitive golf? Are we to be spared nothing?

I see the real solution not in prohibiting presidents from adding in their two cents on sports. To the contrary. Presidents from now on should instead restrain themselves only to the peaceful proclamation of their opinion on sports. The executive branch will have one main function: To scrutinize the rules and practices of all the sporting events in the country. The State Department can even add international games to the agenda. No forceful alteration of any rules, just giving the president’s opinion and perhaps scheduling meetings with the rulemakers, would be allowed.

As for wars, regulations, taxes, and all the rest, the president will have to leave such matters alone. Let society and the world organize itself. The Oval Office will be far too busy with its one legitimate task—mulling over the qualification standards for golf, the rules of college games, and so on. No more drafting up No Fly Lists—much more talk about the Infield Fly Rule. No more deliberating on men and women in uniform, unless it concerns Wimbledon’s rules of proper dress. No more admonitions of the Court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause; but the way football refs interpret the Tuck Rule is fair game.

Then, if you didn’t like the way the president called it, you could vote him out every four years. And if your side lost the election, who cares?

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