For generations, presidents have taken a proud and, at times, patronizing stance on American athletes—when not preoccupied with more important matters. Big Daddy in the White House didn’t bother much with sports.
Yes, Jimmy Carter embraced the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, fresh off its gold medal upset in Lake Placid, and organized a boycott of the '80 Summer Games in the Soviet Union. Seventy-five years earlier Teddy Roosevelt called football's leaders to the White House for a safety summit. But overall, sports have been an afterthought, even when athletes try to get serious. Lyndon B. Johnson never said a public word 50 years ago when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army. LBJ's only response after the black power salutes given by medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the '68 Olympic Games was not to invite the U.S. track team for a White House visit. He issued no statement explaining why.
We are in a different universe now. On Friday, at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who knelt during the national anthem, encouraged fans to protest such protests by boycotting NFL games, and decried—in the face of mounting medical evidence and heartbreaking tales about bewildered former greats—new rules designed to improve player safety.
Then, at 8:45 a.m. EDT last Saturday, Trump tweeted a rebuke to Warriors guard Steph Curry, captain of the 2017 NBA champions, who on Friday had reiterated his stance against the team’s celebratory trip to Washington.
That afternoon, with nuclear war with North Korea a looming threat and the latest Republican bid to rescind the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy, another flurry of “presidential” tweets erupted, demanding that NFL players stand for the flag “(or country)”—or be fired—and slamming commissioner Roger Goodell for a Saturday morning statement of support for his employees.
Sunday morning saw two more:
Just eight months into Trump’s administration, overuse has drained the word unprecedented of all oomph. Still, it isn’t every day, weekend, year or century that a U.S. president, in effect, goes to war with American sports. The immediate response—surprising only in the fact that athletes, owners and commissioners across many sports presented an all but unified front—swung between the eloquent and the uninhibited.
“U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going!” Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lebron James tweeted after Trump’s Saturday un-vite. “So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
“It’s hard for us every day, when we’re seeing the things he’s saying,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Trump. “His comments about the NFL players were as bad as anything he’s said to this point. It was awful. You’re talking about young men who are peacefully protesting police brutality and racism. Racial inequality. Peacefully protesting—hallmarks of our country. Come on.”
Have other presidents used sports to appeal to their base, to advance agendas? Of course. But George W. Bush’s uplifting post-9/11 pitch at Yankee Stadium aside, fun-and-games have been used mostly to burnish these leaders’ everyman bona fides. JFK played touch football, Richard Nixon drew up a Super Bowl play, Barack Obama couldn’t stop bragging about his basketball jones. All sent the same message: Hey, I’m just like you! Armchair psychologists would try to go deep on Bush's daily bike ride, on Bill Clinton’s and Trump’s golf cheating (this publication included), but in the end it was featherweight stuff. Play. Everyone knew it.
That exasperation bubbling beneath Kerr's two most urgent words—Come on—signals something altogether new. Anybody who hoped to insulate him- or herself in a world of bats and balls, ignore the anthem protesters and, as the saying goes, stick to sports, will not have it easy the next few months (if not years).
We should have seen it coming. After all, “locker room talk” is how Trump explained his recorded boast to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush about sexual assault, and such flippancy—not to mention the glaring lack of familiarity with how grown men speak—made it obvious that he regards the athletic world as morally bankrupt and, just as alarming, simplistic. To Trump, the thought that players can both love their country and kneel during the national anthem as a means of pointing out social inequity is impossible. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’” Trump said in Huntsville. “Out! He’s fired!”
The thought that a “beautiful tackle” could also do serious brain damage, or that repeated hits to the head have been proved such a menace to players that the NFL has agreed to pay up to $1 billion in damages, or that one can love football while ceding its ravages, allows for the kind of paradox our sitting president would rather not entertain.
“Today, if you hit too hard? ‘Fifteen yards! Throw him out of the game!’” Trump complained at his rally. “They’re ruining the game! Right? That’s what [players] want to do; they want to hit! ... It is hurting the game.”
This sounded like the nattering of someone who has been asleep for the last decade or, worse, whose mind admits no reality beyond its own. Add in that visceral growl when Trump repeated “He’s fired!” last Friday, or his recent retweets of video clips portraying him thrashing a CNN stand-in or hitting a golf ball that sends Hillary Clinton sprawling, and it’s reasonable to consider that his brain isn't the prime organ at work here. Maybe, like many a 12-year-old boy, Trump works mostly from his gut and crotch and just can’t resist the fun of watching things blow up. Maybe we’ve got our first Child-in-Chief.
Funny. Amid all that slinging of red meat in Huntsville, Trump produced one revealing, all-but-ignored moment. “The NFL ratings are down massively,” he began, jaw ajut. Then a pleasing thought hit; the President smiled and poked both hands at his own chest. “Now, the No. 1 reason happens to be that they like watching what’s happening with yours truly,” he said. “They like what’s happening.”
He was, just then, the very picture of self-satisfaction. Could Trump possibly believe he’d become America’s top spectator sport? It seemed absurd. But recall that in the early 1980s he had finagled desperately through the upstart USFL to become an NFL owner and failed; had tried in '88 to buy the Patriots and failed; had tried in 2014 to buy the Bills and failed. At one point he began showing up at the U.S. Open in an Arthur Ashe Stadium luxury box, stepping forward at key moments to gaze imperiously over the crowd—a man, in Jimmy Breslin’s saw about the power-hungry, in search of a balcony. But the people weren’t there to see him.
Now everything is different. Come kickoff on Sunday, every football klatch buzzed with talk of Trump, tweets, disrespect. Every game began with a demonstration during the national anthem: Players and coaches locked arms with owners, line upon line; some 200 players, more than ever, declined to stand; three teams stayed in the locker room during the song. Trump took it all in.
Like rattled foreign leaders and media types, like the Republican party and Congress and the Fed officials and the NGO staffers and the diplomats seeking consistency and calm, like all those Wall Street swells and bookish types who once dismissed him as too lightweight, too tabloid, sports waited to see what he’d do next. At 2:20 p.m., the tweet finally landed, impervious.
In Indianapolis, Browns QB DeShone Kizer felt the need to declare after his game, “I’m no son of a bitch.” So now, along with the rest of the week, Trump had Sunday, too. His dream came true. Now everything, nationwide, was all about him.