Will America 'build a wall' in sports?

The US and Mexico men's national teams pose for a group photo before a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Ohio on November 11, 2016.

Story highlights

  • Amy Bass: US and Mexico men's soccer teams broke convention during a pre-game photo in Ohio
  • The two teams huddled together for the photo days after Trump's election, she writes

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When the US men's national soccer team lost to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, just days after the election of Donald Trump, their 2-1 loss wasn't the only headline. While many lamented their "dos a cero" streak of more than a decade was broken, perhaps even more remarkable was the photograph taken before the game. Breaking convention, the two squads came together, arms around one another, rather than take separate team photos.

They didn't have to tell anyone why they did it. The fans understood the need for a call for unity -- there were no chants of "build that wall," something that has been happening with disturbing frequency at high school sporting events in the US of late. It was just an intense game that saw Mexico, which lost to the US 2-0 in the last four World Cup qualifying games in Mapfre Stadium, send the US into a tailspin that just culminated this week in the firing of head coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
Amy Bass
The pre-game photograph was reminiscent of another where the impact of the game went beyond the score. Taken in France in 1998 when the US and Iran met in the World Cup, the game "did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years," said US defender Jeff Agoos. A year and a half later, the two squads met again for a friendly game in Pasadena.
    Sport has had its own reactions to Trump's election. Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans refused to stand for the national anthem for one game after it happened. "I'm not a political person that much, but I've got common sense," Evans told reporters when asked why he sat. "And I know when something's not right."
    Donald Trump, of course, is no stranger to sports. As owner of the New Jersey Generals in the failed United States Football League, he advocated for the league to move its season from spring to fall and directly compete with the NFL, claiming it would eventually force a lucrative merger of the two.
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    Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, author of a forthcoming book on the USFL, says that one thing everyone he talked to for the book agreed on is that Trump destroyed the USFL out of self-interest. "He bought a team, told everyone he loved the USFL, and as soon as he got in he bullied everyone to moving from spring to fall to face the NFL," Pearlman told me. "The whole time he wanted the league to fail so he could take the Generals and join the NFL. It was a joke, and he uses revisionist history to explain how he didn't screw everything up. But he did."
    The NFL, of course, spent Monday night in Mexico City, hosting another one of its international series games, designed to expand the league's global reach. Mexico City, says the NFL, has the seventh largest fan base of any North American city.
    The NFL hasn't played a regular season game in Mexico since 2005, but knows that football's Spanish-speaking audience is growing, with Nielsen marking almost a 30% rise in Hispanic viewership in the last five years.
    Back in 2005, the 49ers-Cardinals' game at the legendary Estadio Azteca, a stadium better known for its soccer match-ups, set an NFL-attendance record at 103,467. Monday night at Azteca, the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders braved altitude, pollution and laser pointers before a decidedly pro-Raiders crowd that mixed enthusiastic local fans with those who traveled across the border to watch. Despite the same kinds of apprehensions that greeted the USA v. Mexico soccer game, no one seemed to boo during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner."
    Mexican football fans, it seems, aren't holding the NFL responsible for the comments of the President-elect. But that isn't to say that no one will. As Los Angeles continues its bid to host the Olympics in 2024, some wonder if the election of Trump will hinder the efforts. In Qatar this past week, as Los Angeles made its first of three presentations to the International Olympic Committee, US sprinting star and Los Angeles native Allyson Felix tried to mitigate some of the worry that stemmed from Trump's promises to build that wall, register Muslim-Americans, and question NATO alliances. She assured the IOC that "America's diversity is our greatest strength."
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    While the Obamas traveled to Denmark in support of Chicago's failed Olympic bid a few years ago, it remains to be seen if Los Angeles would consider Trump, who ran with the torch before Athens in 2004, an asset when it makes a second presentation in Lima, Peru, next summer.
    Sports do not always make space for political peace and the Olympics have a particular history of making playing fields into nationalist battlegrounds. At the Olympics in 1956, things got ugly when Hungary faced the Soviet Union in water polo, the famous "Blood in the Water" game.
    But sometimes, as those pre-game soccer team photos demonstrate, athletes also see things in ways that politicians just can't.
    Regardless of who is in the White House, sport marches on. It's the most global thing we do, whether it's the World Cup, the Olympics, or an NFL game in Mexico City that looks to expand horizons, as well as markets.