Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
There’s a lot going on in American sport right now. There are happy stories (the brilliance of Shohei Ohtani, the appearance of two sympathetic underdogs with long-suffering fans in the NBA Finals) – and the less happy ones (the suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson, the horrific assault allegations against Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer). But I wonder if the biggest event that took place on the weekend of July 4th was something hardly anyone noticed. Friday, Los Angeles Dodgers visited the White House to celebrate their 2020 World Series title. They looked like they were having a blast.
And – that’s the great part – hardly anyone noticed it at all. It’s not like there was a lot to notice: the team gave President Biden a Dodgers jersey with the number 46 on it, he made a joke about VP Harris being a fan of the Giants, Clayton Kershaw delivered a brief and unforgettable speech. (Although reliever Joe Kelly wore quite the jacket.) The Dodgers were the first championship team to visit the White House during the Biden administration, and it was all very Biden: lackluster, efficient, a little cheesy, and entirely, entirely Ordinary.
It was the quiet restoration of a tradition that Donald Trump essentially destroyed. No NBA championship team has ever visited the White House during the Trump presidency – not after Stephen Curry proclaimed he would not be going the day after the Warriors’ first title, Trump then revoking the invitation and LeBron James ringing to call Trump “U bum. “College football teams made the trip, but many seemed to do it under duress; no female basketball champion has ever been invited, for the first time in decades. Despite all the talk about his supposed Trumpism, Tom Brady has skipped every trip to see the president, as have many of his teammates. The nadir may have been when the Boston Red Sox visited – but essentially only white players. USWNT star Megan Rapinoe summed up the athlete consensus: When asked what the team would do if they won the World Cup, she replied, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” (Trump responded by saying that Rapinoe should “win before she speaks.” She ended up winning. She still hasn’t gone to the fucking White House.)
There was no drama this time. Almost all of the Dodgers were there, no one stank, and the whole thing maybe never made it through your social media feed. It was a sign that the sport, very slowly, is returning to a pre-Trump version of normal. And that normal, for better or for worse, means less politics.
2020 was the most militant sporting year in modern history, with ramifications that will last for decades. But the extent to which this may have been an aberration is becoming increasingly clear. The essence of the sport – and the very appeal of it to its consumers – is to keep the real world away and out of the playing field. The players want to play, the leaders want to sell tickets, the owners want to stay away. away from controversial topics and everyone wants to make money. While some sports may be more “conservative” (golf, NASCAR, baseball) and others more “liberal” (basketball, football, even tennis), ultimately all sports involve intensely focused competitors who earn their money. life by closing everything to concentrate on their job. LeBron James may be one of the most politically active athletes in sports history, but when he’s on the free throw line he doesn’t think about social activism – he thinks about making that throw. franc. Inertia will always keep everything that does not concern sport away from sport. Some years are more tumultuous than others, but the water will always return to its level. And sports may be the last place in America where the default is “political agnosticism”.
As in most other countries – emphasis on most – the political temperature in sport is undeniably lower after Trump. This is what many sports leaders hoped and even bet. Despite all the talk about the massive boycotts from the Conservatives, Major League Baseball’s decision to move its all-star game from suburban Atlanta to Denver following Georgia’s vote suppression law had no effect. secondary. The sport’s odds are up from a year ago, the right-wing commentary (as expected) has turned into yet another America’s End scandal, and the league is spending the week-long pre-match talking about ‘Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. rather than voting rights. The move to Denver did exactly what the MLB hoped for: It allowed them to focus on baseball, not politics.
There are still political pushes in the sport, but they mostly feel like bad faith actors trying to reenact the biggest hits of years gone by. The most recent “controversy” involved the USWNT, in its last game before going to the Olympics, supposedly “protesting” the national anthem and a WWII veteran who played “The Star-Spangled Banner “on a harmonica. Paris Dennard, national spokesperson for the Republican Party, called it “SHAMEFUL”, and it started quite a kerfuffle Newsmax. The worst people you know have all piled up.
The thing is, it was totally wrong. The team’s big disrespectful gesture was actually an illusion caused by the aerial camera, not showing the flag on the other side of the stadium the team was facing. That was the obvious interpretation for anyone like me watching the game, and it wouldn’t occur to a reasonable person that anything else was going on. But when you’ve been an asshole for five years now, everything looks like a nail. A nail that you miss by tapping your own thumb.
That the USWNT, a longtime target in the right-wing world, was fired as a false villain said: wherever they can. That a clearly bogus national anthem story is the best they’ve got is a sign not only that they’re desperate, but a sign that they just don’t have much to hold on to for the moment.
This does not mean that political activism will suddenly disappear from sport, nor that it should. The upcoming Olympics are already poised to be a hotbed of political imagery, as the Olympics always are, even with the IOC (though not, tellingly the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee) trying to suppress political discourse. Organizations like More Than a Vote will remain active, especially until the 2022 election. The WNBA, in particular, has recognized activism as not only the right thing to do, but as economically advantageous. Athletes recognize their power; their voices will be heard. But also, you know, it’s not an election year, and they’re not in the middle of a pandemic for the first time in two years. Can you fault them for taking a little rest?
Like the rest of us, American sports are trying to get back to some semblance of normal, and in sports that normalcy, for better or worse, involves silly and harmless championship trips to the White House and great soccer games where everyone is standing and facing the flag during the national anthem so they can just resume the game. Many battles are looming on the horizon. But political activism and commitment has simply not reached the feverish level it was a year ago. Right now, almost everyone just wants to play.