The Final Four: Should Obama Watch Tonight?

 A member of the North Texas Mean Green wears a mask as they perform against the Kansas State Wildcats during the first round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

President Obama has been very busy lately, what with Japan, the budget, not to mention launching an attack on Libya. Still, the president himself has been under fire. The leader of the free world, it seems, isn't free to take a break from the real-world madness to partake in a little March Madness.

Rush Limbaugh: “The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down nearly 300 right now. My guess is that the Street really doesn't like Obama's NCAA bracket."

Sean Hannity: "The NCAA tournament picks, I'm sure they're really important for ESPN, but maybe not at this particular time."

Newt Gingrich: America needs "a commander-in-chief not a spectator-in-chief." The list goes on; but you get the idea.

This is the third year in a row, in fact, that President Obama, an avid basketball fan, has filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket for ESPN. (If you care, President Obama predicted Duke, Kansas, Ohio State and Pittsburg to make it to the Men's Final Four, which will be played tonight. He picked the Kansas Jayhawks over the Buckeyes to win the championship, Monday. Never mind that none of his picks will play tonight (If you want to see who is playing, click here). Because this isn’t a post about basketball; this post is about politics.

It is often said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned; and while that bit of historical lore is untrue (there were no fiddles in 1st-century Rome), the long-held misconception suggests that Barack Obama may want to spend the tail end of the Tourney immersed in the misery of Middle Eastern policy rather than the madness of the sports moment.

It also raises an obvious question for the rest of us, on our way to the Final Four. Way back during the first round match-up between St. John’s and Gonzaga - which Gonzaga won by a healthy 15 points - my friend and colleague Chris Cuomo tweeted:

"Weird to hear how serious analysts take the game given the gravity elsewhere? Or a nice break from the real?" I replied "anicebreakfromthereal." And I meant it.

It's okay to watch, talk and tweet about a game, while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. The world has always been on fire; small diversions (as long as we keep them in perspective) are a welcome break from the gravity of it all.

Still, given the current state of the world, I have questioned my every tweet, the public display of my affection for March Madness. It's one thing to watch, with friends, in the privacy of one's own home, even if a guilty conscience suggests one should instead be watching AC360. But to share, on Twitter, the choice of TNT over CNN? Perhaps that was revealing too much?

I have always believed there is cultural value in athletics, however. In fact, I think there is value in playing sports, and understanding how the games are played. My father, a political and news junkie who boxed his way out of poverty and then attended college on track and football scholarships, taught me two important lessons about sports. First, people who believe sports are not intellectually stimulating, simply don't understand the games. Consider simply how frequently sports are subject to debate and interpretation.

Basketball, for example, is so complex that every detail is important. Blink and you miss a game-changing shot. Or take football: Fans can talk for hours about a game, play or call, in an effort to interpret a coach’s strategy or an official's decision.

Second, what the athletes are doing out there is extraordinary; in most cases, it can only be accomplished by a handful of people on the planet. Student athletes, in particular, are to be admired for their extraordinary effort; with each game, match, meet or event, they challenge the boundaries of the human mind, body and spirit.

So, why would anyone waste time watching this a basketball tournament? For the same reason anyone watches any other form of art, creativity or entertainment: Because it is entertaining -- the wins dramatic; the losses are heartbreaking, the accomplishments are inspirational. The young men and women who will play these last few days of the tournament will engage their fans in a heightened sense of what is possible when Americans from different walks of life come together to achieve a common goal.

No one understood this better than Ronald Reagan. In 1985, President Reagan (the man who had played the Gipper) flipped the commemorative coin, before the kickoff of Super Bowl 19. Three years later, President Reagan laid out the White House welcome mat for the Redskins after they beat the Broncos in Super Bowl 22. Reagan understood sports and he understood that the American people love sports too. He brought sports into the White House and kept them there throughout his presidency.

It was a lesson not lost on the second President Bush, who shared his own love of sport with Americans, using it to help heal a nation still reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Just seven months later, fresh into his Afghanistan offensive, he brought the Patriots to the Oval Office, after their win in Super Bowl 36.

Yet, Obama's critics now say his turn on ESPN demonstrates misplaced priorities. Maybe there is some national notion that football is more presidential than basketball? Or maybe folks think presidents grapple every waking moment with the national crisis of the day.

I haven’t worked for Obama. But I did work for Clinton and Gore – setting up interviews very similar to the one Mr. Obama did for ESPN. A moment like that would be very brief. Everything would be prearranged. And the President asked viewers to donate to Japanese relief efforts.

I also know from first hand observation, that presidents, vice-presidents, even their spouses, never really "punch out." Certainly, for the Commander- in-Chief, the job and its almost overwhelming responsibility goes wherever he goes, whatever he's doing.

So, even if he takes a timeout to toss the first pitch on Opening Day (which Obama did not, this year), watch with millions of other Americans on Superbowl Sunday, or partake in the madness of March -- he is still the president, with all that entails. There are crises all the time, and for every president. They are, without doubt, the focus of President Obama's attention – events in the Middle East, the economy and, as he said Friday, jobs.

So that's what I know about sports and politics. I also know that it took me all of 10 minutes to fill my Men’s and Women’s NCAA brackets. President Obama knows a whole lot more about the game than I do. I’ll bet he filled his out in less than five. I think we can give the guy five minutes of fun in an otherwise grueling workday. Any president deserves that much.