Remarks at a White House Reception Opening the "Champions of American Sport" Exhibition

June 22, 1981

It's a pleasure to welcome you all to the White House. I know that I used to talk about some of you on my broadcast when I was sports-announcing, and now I get to meet you in the flesh. I'm trying to remember what all I said about all of you. [Laughter]

The champion of American sports exhibit was a champion idea, and I think we all owe Dennis O'Toole a debt of gratitude for his origination of the concept. And thanks to Beverly Cox and Marc Pachter and Ken Yellis for all the work they did to make it come alive. [The President was referring to the former Curator of Education, the Curator of Exhibits, an historian, and the Curator of Education, respectively, all of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, where the "Champions of American Sport" exhibition was being shown.]

Sports have played an indispensable role in the development of American character. You who were participants have provided, especially for young Americans, I think, an inspiration, something to look up to. It was sports heroes in my day that created in me the ambition to participate in sports -- first in high school and then in college. Indeed, if it hadn't been for football, track, and swimming, I might not have been able to go to college. We didn't have athletic scholarships in those days. We had to do things like wind the clock in the gym. [Laughter] But I loved it when it was plain and simple and honorable. [Laughter]

I maybe shouldn't admit this, but I went to a very small school in the Midwest, and my senior year -- it was the conference that this school was in, had a rule which you could employ someone as an athletic instructor and still leave them eligible to play -- in my senior year, on the starting 11, there were 7 physical ed instructors, and I was the swimming coach. [Laughter] For 8 years, I will also confess though that I didn't know very much about grades like A's and B's, scholastically. The eligibility requirement was a C average, and that became my top goal.

I know there are some in the room -- you know, there's a little nostalgia beginning to creep in here, as you can see. And George here must be champion, because his was baseball. I couldn't play baseball, because I couldn't see good enough. [Laughter] That's why I turned to football. The ball was bigger, and so were the fellows. [Laughter]

Speaking of that, there was one that I know -- there are some people, if I read the guest list correctly -- there are some people here who know this particular fellow. I found myself in football -- I was a guard -- right guard -- [laughter] -- and I was playing against a fellow who later was All-Pro Tackle with the Chicago Bears for 8 years -- George Musso. And as you will recall, in those days you played both offense and defense. So, for 60 minutes I was opposite him. He outweighed me 100 pounds -- [laughter] -- and it was a busy time. I couldn't go under him. I wouldn't do that. [Laughter] And I certainly couldn't go over him. I tried going around him once and ran into one of our men coming around him from the other side. [Laughter] It liked to kill me.

But enough of that. The men and women of sports have done much to bring this country together. One of our first great sports heroes was John L. Sullivan at a time when there was a great discrimination in this country against the Irish. And when Jim Corbett finally took his world title away from him, Sullivan won the hearts of the Nation with his words: ``I have fought once too often, but if I had to get licked, I'm glad it was by an American.''

Years later, another champ, the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, would capture our hearts. And what American can forget the pride that swept this country last year when our U.S. ice hockey team beat the Russians? The image of those boys after the victory on the ice with their country's flag in their hand, I think, is a national treasure.

We owe something else, seriously, to the world of sports. When I was broadcasting major league baseball, there was a rule barring some Americans from playing in organized baseball. And I'm proud that I was one of those in the sports-reporting fraternity who continually editorialized against that rule, that baseball was for Caucasian gentlemen only. And finally, thanks to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, baseball became truly the American sport.

And I'm sure many people have forgotten any feelings of prejudice they might have had as they've cheered black athletes who were bringing home victory for their favorite team. Those players have made baseball better, they've made America better, and so have the great black athletes in all the other major sports.

If there was ever a golden age of sports, this is it. More people are attending sporting events than ever before, and there are a wider variety of sports events today. And just as important, there are more people involving themselves directly in sports. We can be proud of our country's sports tradition. And as spokesman of all our citizens, I want to thank all of you -- the sports men and women this afternoon -- for adding a bit of joy and inspiration to our lives with the achievements that you've made.

So, welcome here to your house, which you're letting me live in for a while. [Laughter] God bless all of you.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 5:38 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.