Amy Bass: Those who object to mixing of politics and sports overlook fact that the two have always been intertwined
New England Patriots players aren't the only athletes objecting to the Trump agenda, she writes
Editor’s Note: Amy Bass is a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle and 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.” Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
It was tough to separate the snow from the confetti in Boston on Tuesday, but the New England faithful didn’t care – they cheered as the wind swirled, chanting “BRADY!” and “TB12!” at the sight of the Vince Lombardi trophy bestowed on their Super Bowl-winning Patriots.
Since 1886, when New Yorkers impulsively threw ticker tape out windows along Broadway at a parade honoring the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, cities have welcomed home dignitaries, astronauts and championship teams with parades like the one this week in Boston. The parades celebrate sports, but more than that, they express pride of city, region, and country.
A visit to the White House by the champions is usually the next step, one taken by iconic athletes and teams before them.
Now, however, at least three members of the Patriots have said they won’t go to the White House to meet President Donald Trump. Defensive back Devin McCourty and tight end Martellus Bennett, both of whom were supportive of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest throughout the regular season, declared they would not accompany their teammates for the ritual photo-op with the president.
McCourty told Time he didn’t “feel accepted in the White House.” They were followed by Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who visited the White House when his University of Alabama team won a national championship but says he will decline this time.
Sports and politics shouldn’t mix, some say. In 1968, for example, on the heels of the black power protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the White House never invited the US Olympic team to come visit.
Bennett, McCourty, and Hightower also aren’t the first to say “no” to a president. Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk avoided meeting President Obama after their teams’ championships, while Manny Ramirez went missing when his Boston Red Sox visited with President George W. Bush. In 1993, golfer Tom Lehman called President Clinton a “draft-dodging baby killer” as the reason for his absence when the Ryder Cup team made a visit.
Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, James Harrison, Tony Stewart – the list of White House snubbers goes on and on, with some athletes making explicitly political statements while others just claiming they had better ways to spend their time. In 2015, Tom Brady himself refused to go, citing a “family commitment.” His absence nonetheless sparked speculation he was still angry over comments White House press secretary Josh Earnest made about the “Deflategate” scandal.
Those who object to the mixing of politics and sports overlook the fact that one way or another, sports and politics have always been intertwined, especially when they intersect in the Oval Office.
And now, athletes from the United States and elsewhere are finding ways to voice dissent against the Trump administration and its policies.
McCourty and Bennett aren’t the only athletes objecting to the Trump agenda. Within the first few hours of the executive order “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States,” Somali-born Olympic champion Mo Farah, a (knighted) British citizen who has been living in Portland, Oregon for the last six years, worried about whether he’d be able to return home from an African training camp. Assured by Britain’s Foreign Office that British nationals were exempt from the order, Farah reiterated that as someone born in one of the seven countries covered by the so-called travel ban, he felt less than welcome in the United States.
Trump’s executive order has a number of potential long-term repercussions in the world of sports. Many worry it could sink US bids to host the World Cup in 2026 or land the 2024 Olympics for Los Angeles. The International Olympic Committee likely doesn’t care that California is the bluest of blue states.
An IOC member from St. Lucia called the executive order “totally contrary to Olympic ideals,” caring little that more than two-thirds of LA voters opposed Trump.
In the short term, as protesters and lawyers descended upon US airports and judges began to respond to ACLU cases, Iran – another of the seven nations singled out – declared Americans were not welcome to cross its own borders. With the Freestyle World Cup slated to begin on February 16 in Kermansha, USA Wrestling scrambled to figure out if its athletes were exempt. When US federal judge Judge James Robart temporarily lifted the so-called travel ban, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted that Americans would receive the necessary visas to compete at the tournament.
Still in question is what will happen when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the government’s appeal of Robart’s decision. It’s also not clear whether Iranian wrestlers will be able to obtain P1 visas – sports visas – to compete in wrestling matches scheduled in the US this spring
Wrestling has provided unlikely common ground between Iran and the United States for several years. In 2013, a coalition of surprising political bedfellows who also happen to be wrestling powerhouses – Russia, the US, Cuba, and Iran – worked together to keep wrestling (one of the original Olympic sports) on the Olympic program after the IOC tried set it aside. The mat is one of the few places the United States engages in friendly international conversation with these countries.
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“I’ve been encouraged this week by the cooperation and friendship of the Iranian Wrestling Federation and USA Wrestling,” United World Wrestling President Nenad Lalovic wrote. “As we’ve seen over the years, wrestling is a sport that unites people and nations.”
If the wrestlers need – and get – exemptions because sports and politics should not mix, what does it say about doctors, students, mothers trying to reunite with their children, sons visiting a dying parent, or babies who need a critical operation? Because we can’t have it both ways.
Sports are part of the political spectrum. And as Bennett, McCourty and Hightower are trying to demonstrate, it’s important for us to listen to athletes for a change.