Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I sort of hate to wade in on the big Obama hoops game story, since these are exactly the kinds of stories that tend to be obsessed over far out of any reasonable relationship with their importance. However, I feel obliged to add my two cents, since I have some relevant expertise. Not the part about studying and teaching the presidency, but the part about hoops -- I've played in regular pick-up basketball most of my life, most recently just last night (I should probably add that I stink, and I'm usually the worst guy on the floor, although I have surprisingly useful worst-guy skills, so I'm able to survive OK even in some pretty competitive games).

OK. First, I generally found this post by Marjorie Valbrun to be on the mark about the main points:
While it is important for women to have access to all-male clubs at the workplace in terms of inclusion and having input when big decisions are made, I don’t believe the women staffers at the White House have to be in on the basketball games in order to, well, be in. There are other ways to ensure they get a seat at the table. By pointedly asking for a seat at the table, for instance, or pointing out when necessary that there aren’t enough, or any women, at the table. Sounds a bit simple, I know, but it’s doubtful that the women occupying high-profile jobs in the Obama administration are shrinking violets who would sit by quietly while the alpha males rolled over them.
That's fine, but I think it's really worthwhile to be careful about what we're talking about here.

First, I'd say that there's nothing at all wrong with the president enjoying an activity that turns out to be long as it's not part of a pattern of exclusion. Fortunately, the Times article doesn't find any such pattern. The president, we are told, golfs, plays ball, watches sports on TV...and wanted a big dog. Now, if we had been told that the president invited only sports fans, or only male sports fans, to watch football with him once a week -- well, then I'd be a bit concerned. But there's virtually nothing in the article to that effect.

Now, I said that I liked Valbrun's comments, but she gets pickup hoops pretty much wrong. Here's Valbrun:
And let’s be honest, how many of us, unless we happen to have played for the WNBA, would really want to spend a Saturday afternoon hooping it up with a bunch of sweaty, aggressively competitive, wonky men—even if one of them were the POTUS? All the chest-bumping, trash-talking, butt-slapping, elbow-throwing, and in your-face-dunking that is part of the game would come to a screeching halt in a co-ed game, making it less fun for the men and less real for the women if the men went out of their way not to touch, bump into, or otherwise injure us physically, or offend our “delicate” feminine sensibilities.
OK, as I said above, I've played pick-up basketball most of my life, in several different parts of the country. I don't know how the better games I've been in compare to the president's game; I suspect that there's not a huge difference. (I've been in plenty of third-rate games too, including alas last night's pathetic excuse of a game). At any rate, I can report a few things. First of all, I haven't come across a whole lot of chest-thumping or butt-slapping. Second, I've never been in a game where women were not welcome. Women are rare, at least in my experience, but I can't say I've ever heard any of the guys express any reluctance to let them in. I have heard some less-than-generous comments about the quality of women's play in general -- guys will say that so-and-so is good for a girl -- and I do think that there's a stereotype of the style of women basketball players, but really, I don't think I've ever come across hostility. And I certainly do not think think that normal hoops behavior comes to a "screeching halt in a co-ed game." In fact, I cannot remember any difference at all in the general atmosphere of the game depending on whether there was a women playing or not. About the only thing I can say is that there are some guys who don't want to D up against a woman, but that's been fairly rare in my experience. I should add that my experience is definitely not limited to academic contexts.

The second thing that I think is worth pointing out is that reading this as men vs. women is also wrong because we're really talking about a fairly small subset of men. Lots of guys never played ball; by the time you get beyond college, the ranks have already thinned quite a bit, and by the time guys are in their 30s and 40s, it's a pretty small group who are still running the court.

Hmmm...there's a third thing to point out. Emily Bazelon quotes a reader who suspects that the guys in Obama's game are terrified of the consequences of beating the boss. I know that's the old cliche, generally from golf, but I'd be very, very, surprised if it applies to a pick-up basketball game. I do suspect that the president probably gets plenty of touches (that is, the ball is passed to him reasonably frequently) whether he deserves it or not, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the guys are a little tentative around him for fear of causing an injury, but I doubt if anyone cares at all whether the president wins or loses.

(Oh -- I almost forgot to add my big hoops & the presidency credential: I've played ball with a guy who played ball with Bill Clinton. Don't think I have a connection like that with Obama, but it wouldn't shock me to find out that I had one).


  1. Surprisingly useful worst-guy skills... is that like, setting picks and hustling on defense? Because that's basically what I try to do and I regard myself as a good worst guy.

  2. Yes on setting picks and hustling on defense; also, working hard under the boards, and most importantly not taking bad shots (which often means not taking any shots).

    I should admit that my version of "hustling" isn't what it used to be. My defensive specialty is getting the guy who shouldn't be taking shots (which, since I'm usually on the worst guy on the other team, is often my guy) to in fact throw up a lot of shots.


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