By Zachary Fletcher
Gerald Ford played football at the University of Michigan. George H.W. Bush played first base at Yale. Richard Nixon once suggested a play to be run by the Washington Redskins. George W. Bush was part-owner of an MLB franchise, all according to USA Today.
The presidency has a long relationship with participating in sports and attending sporting events, dating back to 1910 when President Taft threw out the first ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game. But with his recent speeches and events, President Trump seems to be turning the tides of the presidential relationship with sports.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’” Trump said while giving a speech in Alabama this past week. The president also singled out professional basketball player Stephen Curry in a tweet revoking his invitation to the White House, a common trip made by championship teams after their title victory.
President Trump seems to have created a new dialogue in contrast to the former office holders by inserting himself directly into the issue of kneeling for the national anthem.
Professor James Jasinski of the Communication Studies department speaks of the rhetorical nature of the president’s relationship to sports: “There is an epideictic quality to presidents hosting champions at [the White House] (pro and college), celebrating excellence, commitment, teamwork.” Epideictic discourse refers to the establishing of a community centered around particular values, in this case the celebration of a championship team.
“Sports often becomes an allegory for life,” Jasinski added, noting Reagan’s use of 1984 summer Olympics in his reelection campaign.
“In his recent book on populism, Benjamin Moffitt discusses the way all political leaders, not just populists, have to ‘perform ordinariness.’ For some, sports fills the bill,” Jasinski said.
The history of the president in sports has evolved to include the duty of honoring champions in D.C., and the idea of being involved in citizens’ lives in the form of sports.
But what has Trump done to change that? How has he influenced the way presidents and sports interact?
Questioning a player’s right to kneel and their right to free speech is something new for the president. Calling out individual players in a negative way has also never been done before, especially over the medium of Twitter.
Professor Bill Haltom of the Politics and Government department acknowledges that, saying, “It gets attention, I guess. It may punish Curry for too obviously dissing Trump. Or it may just be another tantrum.”
“The current president relishes violating norms of presidential behavior,” Jasinski said.
These recent developments of Trump’s attack on the current relationship of the president and sports changes the way people look at the office of the president, and it changes the way people look at sports.
“Scholars and politicians have used the expression ‘dignity of the office,’ and specifically the idea of making sure that behavior doesn’t tarnish the ‘dignity of the office,’ to discuss a powerful norm that has curbed certain forms of behavior,” Jasinski said. “All this president cares about is publicity. It’s too early to speculate how his behavior will impact the office. If Americans tacitly endorse his authoritarian demagoguery, the office might be changed dramatically,” he added.
Professor Haltom sees that “Presidents offer their opinions about taste, behavior and practices in many walks of life. Presidents thereby pander, posture and pontificate. The prestige of the office has seldom been lower, so I do not see any lasting effects.”
ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, host of SC6, was also called out by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for comments calling President Trump a white supremacist. Sanders called the ESPN anchor’s comments a “fireable offense,” according to The Hill. Trump’s comments have now received opposition from both the players and the commentators in the sports world, yet his administration has shown no hesitation in going after either one.
As far as the way people look at sports, the new wave of attacks has spurred some change in the fans of the sport. There was intense backlash by many fans of the NFL online, posting videos of themselves burning tickets or jerseys to boycott their teams allowing players and owners to stand and kneel together. There was also a call for free speech, a drive by many to protect those players and get to the deeper racial meaning of the movement as started by Colin Kaepernick a year ago.
“This legitimizes the players as human beings that are able to engage in political discourse,” junior John Leslie (Seattle, Washington) said. Bringing attention to an issue like this is one of the first thing Leslie points to.
“I don’t think it places any shame on the game. If anything it’s a potential catalyst for social change because the NFL does have such a wide breath of viewers,” he added.
Trump’s comments have gotten responses from major athletes across the sports world, many fighting back and opposing what he had to say. Richard Sherman, safety for the Seattle Seahawks, tweeted that “The Behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!” Some NFL teams didn’t come out of the locker rooms for the national anthem on Sunday, while others had owners, players and servicemen linking arms on the field together.
While this issue has caused a multitude of reactions from athletes and citizens alike, one thing is certain: this is not normal. President Trump is changing the way people look at athletes, the sports world, and the idea of free speech. For now it’s the NFL, the NBA and the issue of kneeling that Trump has inserted himself into. What will come next?