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Following Sports in the Obama White House

Former press secretary Josh Earnest explains how sports and politics intersected during the Obama era

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s no secret that Barack Obama is a sports fan. From the Bulls to the White Sox, the former president kept up with his teams. But he wasn’t the only one in the White House doing so. On the latest Ringer MLB Show, former press secretary Josh Earnest explained how he kept up with his Royals during his time in the administration and how sports often intersected with politics.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Having an Escape Is Vital in a High-Pressure Environment

Michael Baumann: How do you follow baseball from inside the White House? Like if you had MLB.tv open on all your computer all day, people are going to notice. There’s not even a lot of downtime for you to go home and watch a ballgame after work. How do you keep up with that on the job?

Josh Earnest: Well, I do have MLB.tv, and that is something that I did watch from home a little bit. Major league baseball actually does make for good background noise while you’re reading.

Ben Lindbergh: Do they give the White House a non-blacked-out version of MLB.tv?

Earnest: Sadly, they don’t.

Lindbergh: Wow.

Baumann: OK, that makes us feel a little better about not being able to get it.

Lindbergh: Even the president can’t overcome the local blackouts.

Baumann: Well, the press secretary can’t, maybe the president can.

Earnest: That’s right. When you have a job like working in the White House, where [you’ve] got lots of demand on your time, having this escape is really important. Following the Royals closely was my little escape. If that was just spending 15 minutes on the MLB website, or The Kansas City Star, reading what happened in the game the night before, or catching some highlights using the MLB app, that was a nice little escape for me. Sometimes that would be early in the morning, sometimes that would be late at night. Sometimes that would be right in the middle of the day. What I often found is that after doing an hour, an hour-and-a-half briefing of answering questions on camera, you gotta find a way to decompress a little bit. If the Royals had a weekday afternoon game, then watching a half inning or a full inning or so was a nice way to unwind a little bit after a lot of stress in the middle of a briefing.

Obama’s Legendary Trash Talk Didn’t Stop Him From Enjoying the Royals

Lindbergh: We know that the president is an accomplished trash-talker. You two are both AL Central fans of different teams, so how much trash-talking of your respective teams was going on on a day-to-day basis?

Earnest: The president is a veteran trash-talker. He never will hesitate to tell you when he’s feeling good about his position. That’s true when he’s cheering on his teams from the sidelines, whether it’s the White Sox, the Bears, or the Bulls. That’s also true when he’s on the golf course, and it’s also been known to happen around the card table as well. He doesn’t hesitate to let you know if he’s feeling good about his team or his place.

The president is incredibly proud of the White Sox. Some of that is, the White Sox, they have a different reputation obviously, than the Cubs. The White Sox in some ways, live in the Cubs’ shadow. But the White Sox, there’s a similar aspect to their profile, which is the White Sox are, in some ways, sort of the historic underdog. … When their team performs well, obviously their fans are pretty excited about it. President Obama did follow the team particularly closely during their run in 2005 to win the World Series. In terms of baseball, more generally, the president was not somebody who would look at the White Sox box score every night, but somebody that followed the broader stories over the course of a baseball season, paid special attention to his White Sox.

All that is to say, that the president actually did end up being a pretty big fan of the Royals. They just had a really good story. A small-market team, building from the ground up, decades of futility sort of being overcome and beating some big-market teams as they made their way through the playoffs. There was a little bit of trash-talking, but mostly the president was living a little vicariously through the Royals’ success, particularly in 2014 and 2015 when they made those World Series runs. He really enjoyed following that team.

I was the press secretary for the last two and a half years, but I served in the Obama White House all eight years that President Obama was there. One of the genuine highlights of my eight years in the White House was the day that the Kansas City Royals came to the White House in July of 2016 to celebrate their 2015 World Series championship. It was a fun chance to meet a bunch of the players, the president had a chance to meet with the players and the front office. I was talking with him the next day, and he remarked about how much fun it was to host them at the White House, that they seemed genuinely excited about the opportunity. I think some of that is because he paid attention to their run. I think, as a sports fan, even if you’re not a big baseball fan, the Royals, particularly in the last few years, had such a good story, in terms of the run that they made through the postseason. The president enjoyed following them as much as anybody else.

Athletes and Writers Can “Stick to Sports,” but They Don’t Have To

Baumann: Over the past couple of weeks, the concept of “stick to sports” has been flowing around in sports media a lot. … There are intersections between sports and politics, whether it’s changing immigration policy affecting NBA players, or stadium funding or labor relations. From the political side of that, do you think that it’s possible to stay in your lane, even if you wanted to?

Earnest: Yes. I think the answer to that is yes. Primarily because, typically when we’re talking about this question, we’re talking with people who are public figures. Sometimes it’s writers or podcast hosts or broadcasters who sort of face this question, as they are covering sports. Are they going to use that platform to also talk a little bit about politics too?

With athletes, it’s a little bit different. These are athletes that have the limelight, and they have the limelight because of their proficiency at a sport. And the question is, are they going to use that limelight to weigh in or advocate for a political preference or a set of values that they feel strongly about? I think it does come down to a personal choice. I think it’s an entirely credible position to take. To say, if you’re a writer, “Look, people read my column because they want some escape from the real world. They want to escape from the debate. I hope they won’t ignore the debate, but if they want to use me as an escape, then I’m gonna analyze the starting rotation for the Washington Nationals in The Washington Post. There’s somebody else in the pages of The Washington Post who is talking about gridlock on Capitol Hill or the controversial executive order from the new president of the United States.” And I think that is an entirely credible, legitimate decision for somebody to make.

At the same time, I also think it’s credible for figures who are in the limelight to use that limelight to express their personal views. That is likely gonna subject them to criticism because the reason they feel the need to express those personal views is because those views are the subject of intense debate, and people who don’t agree with them are likely to criticize them and subject them to the kind of criticism that would otherwise not be aimed in their direction. I can understand and I think that does make many athletes reticent about doing that.

I think what’s different in the current environment is that much of what is being debated now transcends the typical back-and-forth of debates that we’ve had about the best way to govern the country. Much of what is the subject of controversy right now is not the typical sort of back-and-forth between a Democratic governing philosophy and a Republican governing philosophy. What’s the subject of intense debate right now are some issues that go to the core of our identity as Americans, they go to the founding values of this country. I can understand why there are some people, in the sports world or other places, who have the limelight, who, in the past, have declined to get involved in politics, but who are taking a different look at it now, and I think that’s a credible thing given the state of the ongoing debate. I think the question really is, will the intensity of this debate, and will these kinds of values continue to be called into question in such a fundamental way over the long term? Is this a short-term phenomenon? You’ve got a new president who made a lot of big promises, who feels a responsibility to deliver. Are we gonna have six months of this intense debate? Are things going to settle down after that? Or not? I’ve been around politics for quite a long time, and been in the White House for the last eight years, but I would be reluctant to have a guess at this point. I’m not sure that anybody knows exactly how this is gonna play out over the next three or four months, let alone three or four years.