“It is worth remembering — because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’ — throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” President Obama said on Monday during the celebration ceremony for the World Series Champions Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs visit to the White House marked the end of a sports era during Obama’s presidency. But before Obama took office, he made no secret of his love for sports and it surprised few how entangled sports became in his politics, along with the impact he had on athletes to use their platform for political and social issues.
Over the last decade, the intermingling and politics and sports has been discussed more greatly than ever before, despite making fans uncomfortable. Many sports enthusiasts just want to know the score, and for athletes to play their respective games and keep their mouths shut. Obama emboldened athletes though to use their celebrity as a way to say something bigger.
President Obama saw opportunity with connecting with people across political aisles through sports: each year he would create an NCAA bracket during March Madness, once predicting correctly the University of North Carolina would win (two of the brackets are now part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History); he made his love the White Sox part of his identity; advocated for an eight-team playoff in college football; played golf with Steph Curry; and leveraged his relationships with popular athletes to his advantage, reaching a younger base of people who otherwise would have never paid attention to politics.
Last year, he participated in a town hall meeting at North Carolina A&T University, which aired on ESPN, discussing the impact that athletes have with their social activism, and encouraged students to look for ways to to initiate change within their communities.
While many have praised his ability to engage millennials through sport, he certainly had his critics who believed his politics did not necessarily go hand-in-hand with who he claimed to be his personal heroes, like Muhammad Ali.
Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, wrote that Obama should take down the poster of the boxing legend that hung over his desk after he called for an increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Zirin spoke to the Shadow League in more depth, stating, “President Obama, like no other President, has understood the value and the power of what sports has meant to the history of the black experience in this country, for reasons that should be self-evident and obvious. He stated that without Jackie Robinson he would have never been president, and there is a lot of truth to that.”
But with that, Zirin argued that there is a big difference of the powerful symbolism of these athletes and the actuality of both what they stood for and Obama’s presidency.
“There is a problem with a president who spent eight years of presidency bombing seven different majority Muslim countries, then counting Muhammad Ali, the most famous Muslim in the world, and someone who stood against U.S. militarism with all his heart, as one of his heroes. It weakens Ali’s stance and extracts the political teeth from Ali.”
Zirin also believed that Obama used the neutrality of sports to his political disadvantage, stating that he could have been more vocal in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, instead of just defending his right to protest. “It wasn’t him saying ‘I stand with Kaepernick because there is a gap between what this country promises and what it delivers...particularly to people of color.’ He took a much more free speech position.”
Radicalism, not neutrality, is what Zirin hoped to see and felt Obama rode the fence, which led to Donald Trump’s presidency.
“For me there is a huge difference between Colin Kaepernick, and the public service announcement at the ESPYs by Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James...because they’re talking about building some kind of bridge, and that’s very Obama-esque. While Colin Kaepernick is talking about taking a position and fighting for it, which is much more in the tradition of Muhammad Ali.”
Zirin, not shy to share his opinions, stated in finality, “I hope no athletes visit the White House,” during Trump’s presidency.
But for Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer, he believes that Obama’s ability to engage athletes in a way others haven’t was impactful and necessary for political progress.
“There was a cool factor to him, as someone who was a basketball player and basketball fan, and avid sports fan in general,” Brewer told The Shadow League. “The knowledge that he has about the certain details of sports that you wouldn’t expect from someone so important, I think it allowed him to make a connection with athletes. The byproduct of that was that we had more socially aware athletes, and athletes that were willing to speak their mind a little bit more.”
It was President Obama’s ability to relate particularly to black athletes that Brewer saw as a positive shift for those athletes using their voice.
“Because there was this commonality of race, there was also an appreciation of someone who was interested in the things they [athletes] were interested in.”
Beyond that, Obama’s support of women’s athletics was unprecedented according to Brewer.
When the U.S. Women’s soccer team visited the White House after their World Cup win, Obama said, “This team taught all America's children that playing like a girl means you're a badass.”
When the soccer team later filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, Obama made mention of them during a speech on Equal Pay Day, stating, “It’s the idea that whether you’re a high school teacher, a business executive, or a professional soccer player or tennis player, your work should be equally valued and rewarded, whether you are a man or a woman.”
And in one of Obama’s last orders as President, he added four female Olympic athletes to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition: Gymnast Gabby Douglas, ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow, soccer player Carli Lloyd and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Now, Brewer is interested to see how athletes respond to Trump’s presidency.
“Lebron James was there the day after the election, when Obama and Trump first met, and he said the next day he wasn’t sure if the Cavaliers won another championship if he would go back to the White House. I don’t think any team would turn down an invitation to the White House, but certain stars might.”
While Zirin hopes athletes take a political stand against the new administration, Brewer sees more an opportunity to bridge the current political gap in our country, saying, “I think it would be wrong of them to just say, ‘No, we’re not going to pay any attention to this president,’ particularly when a lot of progress has been made to push sports-related issues to the forefront. And it’s also an opportunity to highlight the diversity in sport, and it would be disappointing to close that door.”
Many are interested to see how Trump will merge America’s fascination with sports into his administration. In particular, will there be that same feeling of an open door policy for athletes to come to the White House, and will there be the same feeling of closeness to the President?
Before Trump was even elected, athletes mildly protested him, like Dodger pitcher Adrian Gonzalez, who refused to stay in the Trump Hotel in Chicago with his teammates. And Trump has already shown a disregard for the demonstrations by Kaepernick and fellow NFL players, stating, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him.”
Many also wonder what Trump’s stance will be on the NFL’s decision to take concussions more seriously after mocking the league’s new efforts to prevent and treat them, saying, “Concussions — ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’”
This seems in direct opposition to Obama’s interest in the issue, who hosted the first-ever White House summit on concussions, and who also said if he had sons he wouldn’t let them play football.
The high-profile athlete who tries to build a relationship with Trump will open themselves up to more scrutiny. There will be a question of motive and political gain; there will be a backlash from those vehemently opposed to Trump; there will be praise for using sport as a way to perhaps influence policy in a positive way. There is no question though that Trump’s preeminence on the athletic landscape will pale in comparison to Obama’s, who made sports an integral part of his presidency.
So for the likes of Zirin, who wished Obama’s politics reflected those of his sports heroes, and for the Brewer’s who admired Obama’s ability to further engage athletes, one thing is clear: Obama’s desire to appeal to the country through the shared enjoyment of sport, is perhaps the one thing most can appreciate, no matter who your favorite team is.