FACETIME- Play boys: Watterson explores presidents' games

When historians try to capture the essence of the men who occupy the Oval Office, they shouldn't overlook their athletic ability, says John S. Watterson. The Charlottesville-based sports historian argues that the games presidents play can tell as much about them as the policies they support or the laws they sign. 

"I try to illuminate through sports what their personalities and presidencies were like," says Watterson, author of The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency, published last year.

Watterson's first book, College Football: History, Controversy, Spectacle, revealed that several presidents had been involved in sports, particularly Teddy Rosevelt and Gerald Ford, and that sparked his interest in the ways athletics might influence presidents' behavior in office

In his book, Watterson relates the Monica Lewinsky scandal to Bill Clinton's "violation of rules on the golf course: practicing on fairways, taking numerous mulligans, and giving himself long putts." 

But despite these practices, "If I could play golf with any president it would be Bill Clinton," Watterson says, "because he's an extremely entertaining, bright, lively person. He may cheat, but I might come out with a better score too." 

Moving away from the scholarly history of college football, the current "more reader friendly" book allowed Watterson to combine his love of sports and American history.

"He is a great font of historical knowlege," says UVA English professor C. Brian Kelly of Watterson. "He's taught all over the world."

Indeed, Watterson taught at the University of South Dakota and on military bases in Korea and Europe for the University of Maryland. He now serves on the faculty at James Madison University.

"It just happened that I was teaching in Germany at the end of the Cold War and got to visit Berlin when the wall was coming down," he says. "I would go and watch people literally tear it down with pick axes."

Is the man who has devoted much of his career to sports history an athlete himself?

"Personally, I've passed the age to play team sports," Watterson says, "but I do enjoy playing golf, tennis, racquetball, and occasionally I ski."

So who does a JMU faculty member who graduated from UVA ('67) and lived on the Lawn root for?

"I root for UVA," says Watterson. "Since I got my Ph.D. from Northwestern, I root for them when I can but normally they are really hard to root for."

Watterson speaks at UVA's Miller Center on Thursday, March 22 at 10am as part of the Festival of the Book. 



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