President Donald Trump’s comments about sports have been among the most bombastic of his time in office.
He called NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice “sons of bitches” who needed to be “fired.” He implied that LeBron James isn’t smart.
He often takes to Twitter to poke at leagues for low TV ratings. He recently lobbied for Big Ten football’s return.
It seems no other president has so frequently weighed in on sports – at least not so derisively.
“It is unusual,” said Fred Frommer, author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball. “The closest the president often gets in taking a side is saying his favorite team. You don’t see presidents taking sides on cultural issues. But (with Trump) it’s sticking with a philosophy of being more divisive.”
Yet Trump is far from the first to meddle in athletics from the Oval Office.
Dating to Theodore Roosevelt’s successful bid to save college football and including Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful 1995 White House meeting between conflicting sides of a baseball strike, U.S. presidents commonly delve into sports. Sometimes they’re ruled by passion, sometimes for political gain.
“Presidents and all politicians see sports as a great platform,” Frommer said. “A great chunk of Americans are sports fans. It can be sort of a no-lose for presidents if they take an issue where fans will be on their side.”
Roosevelt had a significant impact on American sports culture, inserting himself into controversy.
While football was growing in popularity, it was dangerous and violent. In 1905 alone, at least 18 people died and 150 were injured. Fatalities stemmed from internal injuries, broken necks and spinal injuries, according to the Washington Post.
Newspaper editorials called for a prohibition, and some schools – including Northwestern – suspended play.
Roosevelt’s passion for saving football probably had less to do with gaining votes and more to do with his personal beliefs of sports’ influence on masculinity and virtue. He invited the coaches of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House during that “deadly season.”
“Roosevelt recognizes football has a problem and wants to try to solve it,” said John J. Miller, author of “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.” “He said, ‘Football’s on trial and you need to fix it.’ He basically said, ‘Look, guys, you have to deal with this or lose this thing we love.’ “
Roosevelt’s insistence on reform helped lead to the forward pass, spreading out players who weren’t packed together fiercely fighting for the ball. The meeting also helped lead to the creation of the NCAA.
“Football changed forever,” Miller said.
Some Americans wondered why Roosevelt would devote time to this cause.
“It was a subject of controversy,” Miller said. “People were suggesting this was beneath the president. He had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and negotiated the (Russo-Japanese War) peace treaty. But people were asking, ‘Why is the president fussing about football?’ He thought football was important for America.”
Perhaps no president was as genuine a fan of sports as Richard Nixon, who occasionally attended Washington NFL practices, even recommending plays.
As with Trump, it’s no surprise his fandom was a convenient public relations tool as well.
Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, a good friend of Nixon, campaigned heartily for him in the 1960 election, rebuking fellow Bostonian John F. Kennedy’s hope for an endorsement.
Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972. He appealed to the NFL to lift hometown TV blackouts for playoff games. When the Senators left Washington, he asked the mayor to replace them, mentioning the White Sox as an option.
“Nixon was a huge football and baseball fan,” Frommer said. “But he definitely commented to aides he knew he could get a lot out of this. Baseball is great PR.”
Some presidents have used sports to send symbolic messages.
George W. Bush wore a bulletproof vest and threw out the ceremonial first pitch during the 2001 World Series after the Sept. 11 attacks, signifying patriotism and resiliency. (Trump declined an invitation from the Nationals to throw out the first pitch in 2017 and is the first sitting president not to take part in the tradition since it began with William Howard Taft in 1910.)
Weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt thought baseball could serve as an uplifting distraction.
He wrote the “Green Light Letter,” recommending to MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis – at Landis’ request for advice – that the sport play on even as many top players entered the draft.
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt wrote. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.”
“FDR was granting permission,” said Adrian Burgos, a University of Illinois professor who teaches Latino, African American and sports history. “He said this will unite the country. The everyday citizen needs something to do with their leisure time.”
Trump urging college football conferences to play isn’t exactly comparable, he said.
“The conflict was not in the United States,” Burgos said. “Being in the midst of a pandemic with the most deaths of any country is very different.”
Some argue Trump’s sports feuds – which often take place on Twitter – are at least partially prompted by athletes’ more widely used platforms for political and social stances, including calling out Trump.
“Teddy Roosevelt would have been great on Twitter,” Miller said. “Who knows what he would have been up to.”
Trump rescinded White House invitations to championship teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Golden State Warriors, specifically mentioning Steph Curry, who had said he wouldn’t attend.
“Whether it’s the NFL or MLB or NBA versus calling out the politics of an athlete, a citizen, that’s such a different dynamic,” Burgos said.
Athletes have rebuffed many presidents before Trump, but that usually didn’t elicit a response from the president.
Golfer Tom Lehman called Clinton a “draft-dodging baby killer” when he declined to attend the White House after a 1993 Ryder Cup win. In 2012, Boston Bruins star goalie Tim Thomas declined to attend a White House ceremony, and Barack Obama still praised Thomas for his role in the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup.
Some presidents made political statements via sports by saying nothing.
When U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were barred from the Olympic Village in 1968 after raising their fists on the medal stand, a public relations outsider suggested President Lyndon B. Johnson invite all Olympic winners to the White House.
This was before the gesture became customary, and Johnson’s staff wrestled with the idea. White House aides wrote in a memo that Johnson had “little to gain” with the “potential for much embarrassment,” according to the Post.
Johnson’s staff ultimately replied that his schedule was too busy.
It aligns with many presidents avoiding divisive issues altogether.
Segregation in baseball, which lasted until 1947, was largely ignored by strategically cautious politicians.
“They kept themselves very far away from the color line,” Burgos said. “Our military was still segregated. D.C. was segregated. They would have had to really address (segregation) themselves.”
Trump, however, seems eager to attach himself to polarized sports topics.
On Sept. 16, he tweeted twice about sports. “I thought the NFL learned their lesson two years ago. The people will not put up with this (again). Just not worth it, hard to watch!”
He also tweeted about Big Ten football: “Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”
His passion for sports may be influential on the election, his legacy and even how our society discusses games. Trump’s motivations, like those of other presidents, seem to lie in politics.
“I think this galvanizes his base,” Frommer said. “Even if the majority disagrees, I think the intensity from those who would support him on this would be more so than people who would roll their eyes. It’s keeping in tune with rest of his governing style and wedge issues. Sports wasn’t really like that. We talked about sports uniting us. You feel like now sports is not a uniting force.”