- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2014

He’s the world’s most powerful armchair quarterback, and President Obama hasn’t shied away from weighing in on the link between concussions and football, the furor over the Washington Redskins‘ name and other high-profile sports controversies of the day.

For Mr. Obama, a self-described sports junkie who golfs regularly and plays basketball occasionally, the athletics realm clearly is comfortable territory, even when he is asked about sensitive, sometimes racially charged topics.

Last year, he joined the growing chorus of critics who said Redskins owner Daniel Snyder should consider a name change for the team. Many consider the moniker offensive to American Indians.

In April, Mr. Obama chastised Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for “ignorant” and “racist” statements caught on an audio recording, and the president called on the NBA to act quickly. Mr. Sterling reportedly will sell his franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for about $2 billion.

Two weeks ago, the president said he likely suffered concussions while playing youth football. He made the revelation at a White House summit on the ties between sports and serious head injuries, elevating the already white-hot issue.

“With all of these questions swirling around, as a parent and as a fan, and in discussions with a lot of other people and fans who happen to be in this White House, we decided why not use our convening power to help find some answers,” Mr. Obama said at the event, attended by officials from pro football and hockey, the NFL players’ union, the NCAA and other stakeholders. “Because we’re all here and are looking for information, even if we may not agree on everything, the one thing we can agree on is that sports are vital to this country and it’s a responsibility for us to make sure that young, talented kids … are able to participate as safely as possible.”

In wading into the wide world of sports controversies, Mr. Obama is to some degree following the blueprint laid out by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who addressed steroid use in baseball during his 2004 State of the Union address.

In the process, analysts say, Mr. Bush was able to connect with the American people on a cultural issue they care about, projecting a sense of authority and an understanding of what is happening outside of Washington politics.

For Mr. Obama, the benefits can be similar, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written extensively on presidential leadership.

“For one, it humanizes the president. It makes the president look like the kind of person who is in touch with what the people are interested in. It also makes the president look like a relevant public figure,” he said. “What happens in the fray of politics is that the president often gets lost and their relevance becomes questionable. In this case, it allows him to rise above the fray. It injects him back into the conversation and it may allow him to pivot to other issues he wants to talk about.”

An interest in sports can be a double-edged sword for a president. Mr. Obama has taken grief for the frequency of his golf outings and was criticized in March for finding time to fill out his March Madness bracket on television at the height of the crisis in Ukraine.

Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama also has weighed in on the steroid issue. At a news conference in February 2009, just a month after taking office, Mr. Obama — a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan — said “an entire era” of baseball has been tarnished by widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs.

But the president weighed in only after being asked about the issue, a pattern that has held true in recent months.

In October, he was asked about the Redskins name controversy in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’d think about changing it,” the president said.

On April 27, he was asked about Mr. Sterling’s inflammatory comments during a news conference while abroad in Malaysia and seized the opportunity to condemn the Clippers owner.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything. You just let them talk,” Mr. Obama said.

On concussions and football, however, the president has taken a more proactive approach. He has been asked about the subject — including in a 2013 interview with The New Yorker in which he said, if he had a son, he might not have allowed him to play football — but also has injected himself into the debate, as evidenced by the White House summit.

For some in Washington, the focus on the link between concussions and football can be a source of frustration.

“I’ve been talking about concussions my whole time here,” Rep. Jon Runyan, a New Jersey Republican who spent 14 years in the NFL, told The Washington Times. “It does get upsetting when people sit there and point the finger at football because there are other sports that have just as many or more injuries.”

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