Last fall, Donald Trump called protesting NFL players “sons of bitches” and demanded that they be kicked off the field and fired “right now.” Weeks ago, he disinvited the Super-Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the customary visit to the White House because “they disagree with our president” about proper observance of the national anthem.
In some ways, Trump’s posturing fits in with a century of sports-politics dramaturgy, which William Howard Taft inadvertently invented by throwing out the first pitch at the Senators’ opener in 1910 and being lionized on page 2 of the Post as one of the “twinkling luminaries of the day.” Politicians have used love of sports, football in particular, to stress the hard work, toughness, and integrity essential to democratic citizenship. “There’s something very important in America that would be lost if…we ever lost our emotional attachment to this game,” Ronald Reagan told the National Football Foundation. Conspicuous displays of fandom have allowed presidents to sell themselves as men of the people. Going to football games, one of Richard Nixon’s advisors wrote, created “a feeling of warmth toward the President such as comes from sharing a mutual hobby.” Even George McGovern, who ran against Nixon on a radical-for-the-times platform in 1972, dismissed radical athletes’ charges that football was brutal and fascistic as “a bunch of baloney.” Trump, in speaking for what he claims is the everyday fan’s desire to separate (left-wing) politics from sports, follows in that heritage.
But in the main his intense public displays of antagonism depart from what previous politicians have done. At his most polarizing, Nixon still contrasted the “pattern of playing by the rules, of losing some and winning some,” that athletics inculcated with the left’s dangerous individualism and refusal to accept setbacks. (As he barely had to imply, they had obviously never played on a team.) Sports emphasized the normality and community that his enemies disdained. This extended to race. With the Republican party’s Southern strategy, a means of attracting white-racist voters with dog whistles, in full flower, Nixon pushed his staff to photograph him alongside African-American players. Ronald Reagan, who gave his first exclusive interview as president to Inside Sports, told interviewer Mark Shields that playing football had given an early opportunity to stand up for racial equality.
That’s not what they mean for Trump. Sports for him is politics by other means: here too he takes previously marginal styles and rhetoric and shoves them into the mainstream. Some were pioneered by mostly forgotten political figures; others barely registered. And now they emanate from the White House.
Spiro Agnew most successfully brewed the toxic mix that we see today. He was a rabid fan and a rabid culture warrior with no scruples about blending the two. One of the Colts’ first fifty season-ticket holders, he missed only two home games in twenty years before the 1968 campaign forced him to skip the season opener. He idolized players and assiduously lined up friendly athletic figures on his side. As Governor of Maryland, he sent star Colts linebacker Mike Curtis, an outspoken conservative, a color image of him tackling Roman Gabriel, asking for Curtis’ autograph. As Vice-President, he met with Falcons coach Norm van Brocklin, another famous enemy of long hair and newfangled things, then requested an autograph on a photo of the two together. Like Trump, he suffered mockery from elites for his faults of taste. Time noted that it was “no coincidence” that this “self-appointed spokesman for the Silent Majority” was “one of the [sport’s] most dedicated fans.” Arthur Schlesinger enumerated that dedication prominently among Agnew’s missteps: with “his Lawrence Welk records and his Sunday afternoons with the Baltimore Colts, Mr. Agnew was the archetype of the forgotten American who had made it.”
Though with a much richer vocabulary, he too railed publicly against his enemies, the “effete corps of impudent snobs” — a slam he delivered the day after watching his Colts beat the Saints in New Orleans. Agnew gloried in his foes’ disdain: “In the New Left rankings of the people’s enemies the institution known as the Football Coach ranks high in the top ten — not far behind the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Motors, the CIA, the FBI, John Wayne, and your truly.” His article in Sports Illustrated celebrated sports as “one of the few bits of glue that hold our society together” before dismissing radical athletes as weak-willed quitters. At a Touchdown Club banquet in Birmingham, he sat beside Auburn football coach Shug Jordan, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and Governor George Wallace and insulted critics of sports as sissy comsymps who hated truth, justice, and Bryant. After the speech Auburn’s Vice President sent a contribution to Americans for Agnew and appended a note thanking the Vice President for his “perceptive attack on the ‘New Left’ which is bent on destroying higher education.”
Yet even Agnew respected traditional notions of sport. He understood it to express the fairness that made America what it was: “everybody was deemed equal and by the rules of the game they could become superior.” This is where Trump departs most fully from his predecessors. For him, football does not represent the mystic play calls of memory or free enterprise in action. Instead, he sees it as a theater of unmitigated violence that literally incarnates a remasculinized, great-again America — Orwell’s nightmarish prediction of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face” as play-by-play. For Trump, the sport simply stands for visceral dominance and infliction of pain; rules are for losers and wimps. In this area — and perhaps only in this area — he is nostalgic for the 60s, when head slaps, clotheslines, and hits on defenseless players were legal. “They’re ruining the game!” he complained about penalties for headhunting and unnecessary roughness. And he has repeatedly promoted a single vision of patriotism with a nasty racial edge.
He invokes the same rhetoric of all-American brutality, and even the same players, as his supporter and occasional co-promoter, WWE impresario Vince McMahon. The stylistic and political links between the XFL and Trump-style political discourse run deep. Just after Trump field-tested his messaging during a brief presidential campaign in 2000, on the Reform Party ticket (“in business and in life, people want to hear straight talk,” he told audiences), McMahon attempted to sell viewers on the XFL. His alternative professional league, which flamed out after a single season in the spring of 2001, sold itself as Making Football Great Again.
“I remember the way the game used to be played,” Dick Butkus growled in a promo, which apparently meant leering sexism (ads showed cheerleaders in towels in the locker room, promising to “lift the… spirits…of every fan in America”), boasts about how little its workforce was paid, and indulgence in untrammeled “attitude and intimidation.” (Announcers boasted repeatedly during the league’s first two weeks that the athletes’ paychecks — plus a bountiful $2,500 bonus per player for the winning team — represented the first actual cash they had seen since training camp in November.) Rather than being compensated fairly for their skills, XFL players were encouraged to treat themselves as brands, with Rod “He Hate Me” Smart becoming an icon. Subsequently, Linda McMahon ran for Senate in Connecticut in 2010 and 2012, Trump donating $5000 to the latter campaign, and she now heads the Small Business Administration. To close the loop, Vince McMahon has revived the XFL for the 2020 season and re-election campaign, this time as a physically safer alternative to the NFL — and, crucially, politically safer as well, as the league will ban kneeling during the anthem. “People don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained,” he told ESPN.
In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt exhorted the Boy’s Progressive League to “act as good citizens in the same way I’d expect any one of you to act in a football game[:…] don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard.” That’s the line that successors left and right walked, celebrating the sport as literally embodying the values and arduous daily challenges of democracy. For Trump, in contrast, sports represent autocracy, power without limits or responsibilities. Players must be able to, in fact should, damage themselves and others, owners to dictate their employees’ behavior, the president to limit contrary speech if it displeases him. It is tempting, as with nearly everything Trump does, to see this as so grotesque a divergence from the mainstream that tradition will reassert itself after he has left the scene — and certainly the angry response to his snub of the Eagles suggests so. But he has repeatedly shown his ability to warp and exceed the narratives by which we have made sense of ourselves and our past. So at this point it makes the most sense to hope that popular attachment to a century of rhetoric will eventually outweigh the bloviating of one especially loud fan.