By Laura Pappano
Is it a problem that White House b-ball games with the president are male-only affairs? Or that, according to the New York Times story yesterday that since taking office President Obama has played 23 rounds of golf – and none (based on records kept by a CBS reporter) included women? (The first female aide, Melody C. Barnes, apparently played yesterday.)
President Obama finds the whole matter annoying and White House communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying that the ball-playing “is just part of the culture that I am excluded from. And I don’t care.”
It’s not surprising that Dunn and other females on President Obama’s staff would downplay the exclusion. But how they feel misses a more critical point: When you are the President, there is no such thing as a meaningless basketball game.
Just as Michelle Obama cannot throw on an outfit and step into public without drawing a detailed fashion analysis (or plant an organic garden and not have it be an important initiative), everything – like it or not, fair or not – is a statement. You cannot choose, in other words, the aspects of your non-policy White House living which are meant to be symbolically meaningful and those that are not. It all counts.
Sports are a tool for relationship building for men and women. And while elite leagues and teams are all about skills, there are many more basketball leagues across the country – many co-ed – that are about getting exercise and connecting with others. There are urban professionals leagues in Manhattan, drop-in co-ed play in New Hampshire and competitive co-ed leagues in Chicago (FYI: one busy message board has female former college players looking to join teams).
It is hard to believe that the guys President Obama has invited to play are elite jocks who chose government service over NBA careers. More likely, they are – like those who join recreational leagues – just looking to sweat and bond. (In other words, it’s not about dunking…).
We know The President likes basketball. He made a photo op of filling out the NCAA March Madness playoff bracket (alas men’s side only). He invited the UConn Women’s Basketball team to the White House, but carefully described them as an inspiration to his daughters, not himself.
The male-focused message may be unintentional. But it does normalize the bias belief that men’s play is the real thing and women are wannabees.
No one wants to deny Mr. Obama the fun and fitness of hoops, but he should be astute enough to know that there is an awful lot of political capital embedded in, literally, being able to pass the ball to the POTUS.