“I never was a champion at anything,” Theodore Roosevelt famously said, declaiming any particular athletic prowess. So what can be said about his involvement, influences, and significance regarding sports? In a recent article in the Journal of Sports History, Ryan Swanson examines TR’s “complex and contradictory record” and argues that Theodore Roosevelt’s impact on the sporting culture has made him the Sports President of the United States. Swanson, a sports historian from the University of New Mexico, discussed his research in a recent interview with the Theodore Roosevelt Center.
Q: How did you get involved in exploring what makes a sports president?
A: I guess a couple of things. I’m a sports fan first of all. I grew up playing sports as a kid and continued in high school and college. So I was interested on just a basic level. When I went to graduate school and became a historian, I looked for opportunities to bring sports into the equation and use that to tell a story. My expertise is in the nineteenth century which is actually a little bit before TR. I wrote about sports right after the Civil War. Then as my work progressed, I started looking into college athletics. That’s where TR started to come up a lot. I was working on a project about college conferences—what they do and what they’ve done historically. That’s where I came to the topic of TR as the sports president.
Q: In your own words how would you define sports president?
A: The way I’m using the term sports president refers to the president that I found to have the most involvement with sports and then the most influence on sports in the United States. Those are the two criteria that I tend to use.
Q: Why is Theodore Roosevelt the sports president over presidents who might be considered to be more athletic?
A: Gerald Ford is probably the best athlete we have ever had. He was an All-American at the University of Michigan and he was a good athlete. The first George Bush started at first base at Yale. President Obama talks a lot about sports, plays a lot of golf, and he loves his Chicago White Sox.
Roosevelt isn’t any of those things. Roosevelt plays a lot of sports, but he admits that he is not that great at it. However, he talks about sports constantly and meets with teams. He has opinions on what sports should be and gets involved with all these different sporting events. That is why I found him to be what I call the sports president. The integration of sports into TR’s life was more significant.
Q: How does TR play a crucial role in the invention of the sporting republic?
A: This is actually the subject of the next book project I am working on—how Roosevelt helped create our sports culture. Roosevelt starts the conversation regarding sports that we’re still having today. Roosevelt is really the one who starts talking about what college athletics should look like. He wants to make sure that football, though it may be violent, is not dangerous. Think about the way we talk about concussions today. He really started that conversation and shaped the way we think about it. Roosevelt is the one who talks about masculinity, how you have to be a rough-and-tumble kind of athlete. (Roosevelt hates baseball, incidentally.) He doesn’t get his way on a lot of things, but he starts these conversations. Theodore Roosevelt is connected to so much in sports. He’s involved in the NCAA. He’s involved with the first World Series. He’s involved with the first Olympic Games and with the Army/Navy football game. It’s like he’s got his fingertips on everything, so he’s able to shape the development of sports culture at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Q: Did Spalding use TR’s words “Baseball is America’s game” as a marketing campaign?
Actually, by the time TR becomes president, that saying has already been around for about fifty years. After the Civil War, people started referring to baseball as America’s pastime. Spalding used these ideas to sell sporting goods. Roosevelt writes, in letters to his children, that he thinks baseball is full of people who are mollycoddled. He wants there to be more physicality. So when Roosevelt repeats the saying, he does it begrudgingly.
The Pied Piper of America, June 6, 1914. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
Q: How important was it for TR to release stress by participating in physical activities, or even sporting events?
A: It’s vitally important to him for his whole life almost. He was sickly as a child, but by the time he comes to his teenage years exercise becomes part of his everyday routine. Sometimes he goes for a long hike, sometimes he takes a horseback ride, and other times he loves to wrestle or box or spar. He forms the tennis cabinet while he’s at the White House, since he prefers to consult with other politicians while playing tennis. A year or so before he dies he takes a trip to South America and does that whole adventure down there. He likes to do that kind of stuff and he does it all the way to the end of his life. So, I think his physicality is extremely important on an everyday level. He likes to be active, and I think it’s vitally important to who he is. At the same time, though, he reads and writes books voraciously. So he’s a tough example to follow because he is really physically active and really intellectual as well. He’s an impressive individual and people connect to that.
Q: How did Theodore Roosevelt save football?
A: I would argue that Roosevelt loves football and he’s part of the discussion about how to save it. It’s too simplistic to say he saved football. He does help bring people together. He brings the Secretary of State, coaches from Harvard and Yale, and others. But when you look at what the universities do following the meeting, they don’t follow his directions necessarily. He encourages all the universities to keep their football programs in place, but Georgetown University and Columbia University shut down their programs. Some of the universities listen to him, but some don’t. The NCAA does start to take shape after this discussion. But saying that he saved football overstates the case. You can’t say a president does something, especially outside the political arena, on his own.
Q: Since TR never rose above third string do you think this is why he didn’t think winning was everything?
A: That’s a good question. I think Roosevelt is not a great athlete and he knows that about himself. A lot of us have delusions about how good we are. I don’t think he does. He realizes early on that the best he can really hope for is robust participation. What we can know for sure is that Roosevelt isn’t a great athlete, but he loves to participate and also loves competition. He’s not calling for a situation where everyone gets a trophy.
Q: With all the money that sports generate do you still think TR would emphasize the love of the game?
A: The world is such a different place now than it was during Roosevelt’s time. Today a lot of people have the opportunity to go to college, for example. At the turn of the twentieth century, university students were mostly wealthy young men, and this is who Roosevelt had in mind when he was advocating for physicality and athletic participation. I would argue, though, that Roosevelt is very much accepting of change. When you look at his approach to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the big corporations, he’s okay with big businesses and technology, he’s always just trying to keep it under control. So I think Roosevelt would be okay with the NCAA and big time college sports. He would always be trying to round out the rough edges of professional sports to make sure there’s no cheating or to make sure steroids are controlled. I think he would be a reformer. He adjusts with the times. So I don’t think he would be shocked and say we should go back to Victorian Age sports or something like that.
Q: Any final comments about what people should know about TR being the sports president?
A: Roosevelt is unique because he plays sports and he writes and he talks about sports so extensively. He’s not just an athlete but he’s an athletic theorist. He’s always trying to argue as a reformer. Most people are either on the reform side or they’re on the athletic side, but he’s on both. There are just a lot of fun stories about him that are worth telling. He wrestled in the White House when diplomats came, for instance. For someone who has been dead for almost a hundred years, he continues to be a larger than life figure today, and I think his involvement with athletics is part of what makes him so captivating.