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US Presidents had a history of mixing sport and politics – until Trump

The current resident of the White House has a vendetta against the NFL after his failed attempt to set up his own league, writes PAULINE MURPHY

Donald Trump is the schoolyard bully who bullies all around him until he comes up against the big boys in the playground and against them he meets his match.

His tasteless tirade against NFL players who chose to kneel rather than stand for the United States national anthem has backfired. 

With his long history of being a bombastic bully, Trump challenged team owners to fire the players, or the “sons of bitches” as he so eloquently put it, but players and owners defied Trump’s despotic diatribe.

The thin-skinned Trump takes everything personally and his recent attacks on players who “take the knee” could be traced back to his own disastrous foray into the sport. 

In the 1980s he tried, and failed, to set up his own league to rival the NFL and now he’s wading into the sport again, but with even greater consequences. 

Trump’s tasteless tactics to ruffle feathers within the NFL today reflect the type of regime currently wedging a great divide in US society. 

Sport is a tool to bring people together even in a country as divided as the United States. In the US, sport played a role in assimilating immigrants, it was a cultural token of commitment to the United States. 

Presidents throughout history blended sports and politics in a somewhat positive light. In April 1910, president William Howard Taft began the tradition of throwing the first pitch of the opening day of the baseball season. 

During World War II president Franklin D Roosevelt ordered the baseball league to continue as normal throughout the war years in order to keep US moral high. 

In the 1950s president Dwight D Eisenhower used sport as tool to cool the burgeoning cold war when he ordered the national ice hockey team to play an exhibition match in the Soviet Union. 

Many presidents were sportsmen in their own right, notably in American football. Gerald Ford almost became a professional player while John F Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Richard Nixon were star athletes at university.

In the case of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1905 he helped save the sport from extinction when calls for its abolishment were growing. The case of 18 deaths on the field of play that year resulted in the president wading into the sport and he called the heads of Princeton, Yale and Harvard universities to Washington to create rules and regulations for the game. 

Roosevelt was a Republican president and now a century later another Republican president is wading into the world of sport but with a menacing agenda of division.

Back in 1936, division within US society was reflected in sport when Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete, won gold at the Berlin Olympics. Owens won Olympic glory for “old glory” and did so in the face of a nazi ideolgy which proclaimed white Aryan supremacy. 

When Owens arrived back home to the “land of the free” his feat was ignored by FDR. While a reception for white athletes was held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, gold-winning Owens had to make do with a reception at the Waldorf Astoria where his family were instructed to enter via the goods lift. 

A pale rectification was made in 1955 when Eisenhower awarded Owens with the title of national Ambassador for Sport and in 1976 he was given a medal of freedom by Ford.

In the 1960s athletes, most notably those who suffered because of the colour of their skin, challenged the status quo through iconic acts of defiance.

In Mexico City 1968 a most iconic stance was taken by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. On the podium with gold and bronze medals around their necks, the two athletes bowed their heads and raised their arms with black gloves on their clinched fists during the playing of the national anthem.
1968 was a volatile year in the US and its standing in the world was severely diminished with its continual war effort in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and the departure of one controversial president, Lyndon B Johnson, and the arrival of another, Nixon.

Also on the podium that day in Mexico was Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, who in solidarity with Carlos and Smith wore a human rights badge. When Norman went home to Australia he faced blacklisting due to his stance. 

When he died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral and gave eulogies for the Aussie who stood with them on that iconic day in 1968.

When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to Vietnam in 1967 he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from boxing. Ali declared: “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong, no Viet Cong never called me a nigger.” 

Ali’s stance saw him praised by many and ridiculed by some. Those who did not publicly let their thoughts be known were those in the oval office. Presidential opinions on the Smith and Carlos salute at the 1968 Olympics were also kept within the confines of the White House. The Oval Office was not used as a pulpit to fan the flames of division that were burning through America at the time.

A more subtle stance of protest used by athletes is the snubbing of an offer to visit the White House and the current occupant of the Oval Office Twitter trolls those who refuse to attend a White House reception. Winning teams recieving an invite to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is as old as the act of snubbing such an invite. 

In 1984 Larry Bird of the NBA franchise Boston Celtics famously failed to turn up to the Regan White House, later stating: “If the president wants to see me he knows where to find me.”

In 1991 Chicago Bulls stalwart Michael Jordan chose to spend a day on the golf course rather than spending it in the company of George H Bush while Tom Lehman, noted golfer and Christian hardliner, declined a White House meeting with president Bill Clinton, refering to him as a baby killer.

President Barack Obama also suffered snubs from invited athletes to the White House during his tenure but did not childishly lash out on twitter. 

In 2017 the office of the President of the United States is tarnished by the egomaniac behind the desk in the oval office. His is a regime overseeing the creation of a dis-United States and sport is the latest victim in his cultural attack.

Some years ago Obama spoke about the role sport plays in society and described it as “fundamental to who we are as Americans and our culture. 

“We’re competitive. We’re driven. And sports teaches us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed not just on the field but in life.” 

Sadly it seems such sporting ideals do not fit into Trump’s America.



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