Pro sports have long found patriotism to be good for business. Field-sized flags and taxpayer-funded flyovers are de rigueur for big games. Presidential complicity has been an important part of that arrangement. Presidents since Taft have been lobbing ceremonial first pitches. George W. Bush famously threw out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series, the first after 9/11, wearing a bulletproof vest. The first World Series champion to visit the White House was the 1924 Washington Senators. In recent years, practically every team that’s won a major championship, college or pro, has been invited to meet with the president.
The choreography of the champions-visiting-the-White-House dance had been perfected. The team presents the president with a personalized version of its jersey, usually with his name and the number of his presidency emblazoned on the back. (“Michelle Obama Throws Out a Bunch of Barack’s Old Number 44 Jerseys,” The Onion joked last fall.) The president holds it up, smiles broadly, cracks a few jokes. It was, by most measures, a harmless and mutually beneficial arrangement: The teams and their leagues got good publicity. The president got to bask in the reflected glory of champions.
The presidential-sports complex was perhaps the last fully functioning bipartisan tradition left in Washington. This weekend, Trump blew it up. His short presidency has been marked by many watersheds. But this one feels different. If the president is at war with pro sports, no cow is sacred anymore. Trump v. Sports promises to be a long-running drama.
Of course, Trump’s comments were about race as much as sports. Nearly all the athletes who drew his ire—the anthem kneelers and Steph Curry—are black. The Uppity Negro Athlete is a familiar trope in white America, and one that resonates especially with Trump’s supporters. Playing in the NFL (which is 70 percent black) is, in Trump’s opinion, a “privilege.” Never mind that it’s a privilege that comes with dreadful risks, including the degenerative brain disease CTE.
Black athletes who take a knee are “disrespecting our Flag & Country” and should be fired or suspended, Trump wrote. Here, sadly, Trump stands more closely aligned with historical precedents. After Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Lyndon Johnson refused to invite the U.S. track and field team to the White House. (Obama finally invited Smith and Carlos to the White House in 2016.)
It’s also worth noting Trump’s short, miserable record as the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a United States Football League team. Trump urged his fellow USFL owners to sue the NFL, with disastrous results. Although the NFL was found to be in violation of antitrust laws, the USFL was awarded just three dollars in damages. Perhaps the president still harbors ill will from this embarrassing episode.