Eric Heiden, the iconic American speed skater who set the 1980 Winter Olympic Games on fire, once said, “Sports and politics don’t mix.” Referring to President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, Heiden, had he qualified, would have defied the President’s Summer Olympics’ embargo. Ultimately, Heiden did not qualify, the United States did not participate in Moscow, and four years later, the Soviet Union was a tit for tat no-show for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Heiden’s claim that sports and politics don’t mix is wishful thinking in America today, especially for the many Americans who retreat to sports as an escape from the nation’s polarized political atmosphere and those whose neglect politics outright. Historically, athletes have used their platform to express political beliefs and have faced the consequences, including the criticism and repercussions of Muhammad Ali’s decision to dodge the Vietnam War, the backlash from John Carlos’s and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association’s counterblast to the St. Louis Rams’ “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” gesture in response to Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer.
However, in an era when athletes have particularly been propelling themselves into political advocacy, President Donald Trump, like no President before him, has used his bully pulpit to command the American sports narrative. When taking into consideration the way conservatives historically view mixing sports and politics, this could not be a more ironic circumstance during Trump’s tenure in the White House.
Trump’s sharp rhetoric has enlivened much of the conservative-leaning demographics of American sports fans, particularly with his scathing, derogatory rhetoric towards the athletes who kneel during the traditional pre-game recital of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A trend most prominently featured in America’s largest and most popular sporting enterprise, the National Football League (NFL), taking a knee during the National Anthem rose to the spotlight when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, sat during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice in the United States, stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” However, after consulting former Green Beret and retired NFL player Nate Boyer, Kaepernick altered his protest and kneeled, setting off a chain reaction throughout American sports, not just the NFL, which has received mass attention and scrutiny from the media.
Although Kaepernick’s polarizing actions predated Donald Trump’s election, the 45th President has repeatedly attacked him and taken a hardline stance against players who, in his view, “disrespect our flag.” In August 2016, GOP nominee Trump said of Kaepernick’s protest, “I think it’s a terrible thing. And, you know, maybe he should find a new country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.” President Trump also blasted the beleaguered quarterback at a rally in March 2017 by appealing to his crowd of supporters who, according to Trump, “...like it when people actually stand for the flag.” What may be the most impactful is the reasonable assessment that Trump single-handedly ruined Kaepernick’s NFL career. The quarterback remains unsigned in the NFL quite possibly because of the President’s apparent threat to NFL owners, which, according to Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones, goes as follows: “Sign Kaepernick and feel the wrath of the 63 million people who voted for me, some of whom are fans of your team.”
By decrying the protest of the National Anthem and encouraging NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the anthem, Trump has dismissed the ideals of freedom of speech as explicitly permitted in the Constitution’s First Amendment. He has also effectively rallied his steadfast supporters to support the idea that exercising a right afforded to people in the United States demonstrates the greatest extent of anti-Americanism and warrants exclusion from society.
The Colin Kaepernick saga only scratches the surface of President Trump’s invasion ofthe American sports landscape. At a rally in Alabama for the purpose of endorsing Luther Strange for Senate, Trump extended his criticism of Kaepernick and doubled-down on his crusade against the NFL. He also blasted the NFL for “ruining the game” because of the league’s efforts to institute new rules that limit head injuries that have been proven fatal, especially in wake of recent reports confirming a correlation between football and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Furthermore, Trump’s election cast a shadow over the status of the traditional visit to the White House for a major sport’s champions, and a day after Trump preached to his Alabama choir, the President rescinded the invitation to the White House for the 2017 National Basketball Association (NBA) Champion Golden State Warriors after their star player, Stephen Curry, expressed his disinterest in attending an event hosted by President Trump at the White House.
The above actions received widespread condemnation from notable NFL and NBA athletes, spurring demonstrations in every NFL game played the following weekend and afterwards one by NBA superstar and outspoken Trump Critic LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in their first game of the season. In wake of this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell received the Presidential seal of disapproval after not committing to instituting a rule that would make standing during the National Anthem a league-wide policy (though he did express the belief on behalf of the NFL that the players “should” stand).
Trump’s well-documented undermining of the media is no different when it comes to sports media, particularly ESPN, which abides by its motto: “the worldwide leader in sports.” Notably, in response to ESPN on-air personality Jemele Hill’s scathing tweet about the President being a “white supremacist,” Trump slammed the sports network for continuing Hill’s employment, tweeting that it is “no wonder [why] ESPN ratings have tanked.” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to Hill’s anti-Trump tweets as a “fireable offense,” though it is ambiguous if her actions legally warrant her firing from the network. These tweets also angered a conservative base that accused ESPN of applying a double standard when it dismissed baseball analyst Curt Schilling for sharing a Facebook post in response to the controversial North Carolina bathroom bill regarding transgender persons but not disciplining Hill.
Much of Trump’s politicization of sports carries significant irony. Common conservative belief advocates for the “stick to sports” message, which, according to High Point University associate professor Paul Ringel, is a message “...that focuses as much on preserving a national system of economic and social inequality as it does on maintaining white supremacy.” Modern conservatives have heavily criticized ESPN for not “sticking to sports” and have blamed ESPN’s recent layoffs on the network’s tendency to speak about political issues relating to sports. However, Trump himself rallied his base in staunch opposition against talking about subjects of societal importance beyond the playing field by using every ounce of his stature as President of the United States, thereby directly mixing sports and politics.
Despite the aforementioned hypocrisy, Trump has successfully maneuvered his way around inconsistencies like mixing sports and politics during his presidency. Trump framed the sports protests as unpatriotic and brought his impenetrable base along for the ride. As a result, millions of sports fans have put pressure on American sports for “disrespecting” America. The President, like a puppeteer, attempts to control the sports landscape, and he can manipulate it however he pleases.
Indianapolis Colts’ safety Darius Butler said he adopts Kaepernick’s protest-kneel because he doesn’t want Trump to “hijack the narrative.” With the President mixing sports and politics, deeming First Amendment rights unpatriotic, and causing widespread outrage as a result of his actions, he has done exactly that, permanently killing the notion of “stick to sports.”
- Jake Steel