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Senate pickleball caucus leaves politics off the court

Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) face off in a game of pickleball in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, along with members of the D.C. professional team.
Lexie Schapitl
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NPR
Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) face off in a game of pickleball in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, along with members of the D.C. professional team.

A bipartisan group of senators are joining the ranks of Americans picking up paddles and playing the fastest growing sport in the country — pickleball.

Once a week, the group sets aside politics to play for a while. For Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., those moments of human connection sow seeds for better communication.

"It's kind of hard to treat people in an untoward way if you've been out on pickleball court, on a mountain bike trail, spent time with them," he told NPR. "We need more of that."

The game combines ping pong, badminton and tennis — and has spread from high school gym classes and retirement communities to a multimillion-dollar professional league with teams owned by LeBron James, Chris Evert, Tom Brady and Drake.

West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who is a tennis player, took it up during the pandemic as a way to spend time with family outside. She co-chairs the new Senate pickleball caucus with Tillis and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.

Nodding to the talk swirling about about fights over federal spending and the odds of a government shutdown, Capito said, "All of the cares, or all of the worries are in front of us, and we'll deal with those, but not this morning."

Capito and Tillis faced off on a court on the top floor of the Dirksen Senate office building early last week at an event with officials from the pro league, the sport's organizing group and the D.C. professional pickleball team.

Capito, who also plays on the congressional women's softball team, says playing sports helps build relationships, regardless of party affiliation. "It's a way to sit down after the game and talk about your family or the game. It's a way to connect in a different way, more relaxed, so that when we do want to relax or if it gets tense, we already know who we're looking at."

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis co-chairs the Senate pickleball caucus and recently played with a group of D.C. pro players
Deirdre Walsh / NPR
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NPR
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis co-chairs the Senate pickleball caucus and recently played with a group of D.C. pro players

Having a court so close to the office makes it convenient.

"There are no excuses," Tillis said. "You can do it before the committee meeting starts, go take a shower and you're at work."

He also plays with his staff and says they don't take it easy on him.

"They trash talk me, humiliate me, we have fun," Tillis said.

Fastest growing sport looking to expand

The sport has exploded with an estimated 48 million Americans now playing regularly, according to Steve Kuhn, the founder of Major League Pickleball — a professional league he created two years ago.

Kuhn joined senators on the court last week. For them it was a chance to get some tips from the pros. For him, it was a chance to lobby for federal money to help expand the sport into more urban areas and make it available to people of all ages.

"In every community in America I think the cost of creating pickleball courts is relatively low compared to the amount of impact that it has on communities across the country," Kuhn said.

Kuhn was also looking to debunk the sport against stereotypes that may be holding it back. First, he says, it isn't for old people.

Ten years ago, the average age of most pickleball players was in the 50s, now it's in the 30s.

"This sport is the Benjamin Button of sports," he said. "It gets younger every year."

Kuhn brought four members of the co-ed D.C. professional pickleball, who played collegiate tennis, to put on a clinic for the lawmakers. Kuhn noted last year the league had roughly $1 million in prize money, and this year it will be up to $5 million. Initially investment in teams started at $100,000 and now some teams have been selling for $10 million, with pro athletes like Patrick Mahomes and Kevin Durant investing.

Al Tylis, who owns the D.C. team, told NPR he's been involved in other professional sports team, but like others who started playing pickleball he got addicted. He attributes the growth of the league to fact that people start playing the game and "it just becomes contagious."

Lawmakers from both chambers, all ages, picking up paddles

Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, 34, is younger than the senators in the caucus, and says some House members are starting their own pickleball caucus. She noted that unlike the Senate, they don't have their own court, and if they want to play in Dirksen, they need to be invited by a senator.

Jacobs is usually a tennis player, and was invited by Capito, and also took up pickleball after her parents started playing during COVID.

"It's a really fun way to have like intergenerational camaraderie and you know, I think it's a fun sport regardless of how old you are."

Tillis says he's played about eight times and plans to keep at it. Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis is a rookie but faced off against a Democrat she's working on some new legislation with, New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand.

Lummis joked that she thought both of their legislative styles were coming out on the pickleball court, calling Gillibrand "aggressive" and herself, pointing to her Wyoming roots, more "laid back."

Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., (on left) faces off against Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., (on right) with members of the D.C. professional pickleball team at an event with the Senate pickleball caucus.
Deirdre Walsh / NPR
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NPR
Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., (on left) faces off against Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., (on right) with members of the D.C. professional pickleball team at an event with the Senate pickleball caucus.

Lummis plans to play again and says what she likes about the sport is that "anybody can play at any age and everybody can play together."

Gillibrand agreed.

"I'm very aggressive in my legislation and in my sports," She said.

Gillibrand usually plays a weekly tennis match on the Dirksen court, which plays triple duty with space for basketball, tennis and now, pickleball. The crowded schedule means Gillibrand and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had to negotiate a schedule around his regular basketball games.

But she decided to try pickleball and get some tips from pros on the D.C. team, who demonstrated strategies for hitting winning shots in the "kitchen" — the section close to the net on the court where both senators and the pros were zinging shots across the net.

Like Capito, Gillibrand said she's built bipartisan relationships playing on the women's softball team, and said, "I think pickleball can do the same thing. Pickleball is also co-ed so we can bring our male colleagues into this."

Lawmakers finished their games and headed back to the high stakes funding debate. Kuhn passed out hats with the slogan "Pickleball will save America" on them.

Maybe it won't do that, but Capito said the caucus will continue to meet weekly, and they'll leave politics off the court, even if it's just for a few hours a week.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an assistant producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces, the NPR Politics Podcast, and digital content. She also reports from the field and helps run the NPR Politics social media channels.
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