President Obama said Friday that professional and college football have been “a little bit of an old boys’ network” but that he thinks sports franchises are now establishing clear policies to address the off-the-field behavior of their athletes.
“This is not unique to the NFL,” Obama said in an ESPN radio interview. “There have been some blind spots that are rooted not just in pro football but back into college football.... Certain behaviors have been tolerated.”
Obama noted the case of Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back caught on video in an elevator assaulting his then-fiancee, whom he has since married.
Asked whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had “too many men” around him as he was handling the matter, Obama made an argument for all leaders – including presidents – to promote women and have people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds on their staffs.
His remarks came in an interview with ESPN radio’s Colin Cowherd, who asked several questions about politics in sports, starting off with a reference to Cavaliers forward LeBron James’ decision to help promote healthcare.gov, the website where people can sign up for insurance through the federal government’s marketplace established under Obama’s landmark healthcare law.
James also made news this week for wearing a T-shirt during pregame warm-ups reading “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the dying words of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was put in a deadly choke hold by a police officer trying to take him into custody. Garner’s death and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer stoked the tensions that had emerged in recent months after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“Some of our greatest sports heroes – Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe – they spoke out on issues that mattered at pretty critical times,” Obama said. Athletes are entertainers, he said, but they’re also citizens.
Still, he acknowledged, he spends “most of my time” watching ESPN as he gets ready in the morning and doesn’t want to be “inundated by chatter about politics.”
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