Unless you have been without power and newspapers for the last 96 hours, you know that on Sunday the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won their fourth soccer World Cup in the last 28 years.
For the last 40 years, the administration in power in the United States has traditionally sent delegations to major sporting events worldwide to help cheer on Team USA. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all attended the Olympics while in office. (President Jimmy Carter was part of the delegation sent to Atlanta in 1996.) When the USWNT bested Japan in the 2015 World Cup final in Canada, the U.S. delegation was led by then-Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
Like so many other elements of American life, it seems that politics is now getting in the way of this tradition.
In the crowd to cheer on the USWNT in the finals Sunday against the Netherlands was a delegation of Trump administration officials led by … Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley. No offense to the deputy secretary, but it was an underwhelming show of support by the Trump administration. Especially when the king of the Netherlands and his daughters made the (admittedly much shorter) trek to sit amongst the crowd in the stadium.
Politico blamed the “low-key” nature of this year’s delegation on the “feud” between President Donald Trump and team co-captain Megan Rapinoe who, earlier this year, used colorful language to indicate that she would not accept an invitation to the White House if her team were to win the Cup. (The video came to light in the middle of the United States’ march to the World Cup title.)
Rapinoe – who was asked whether she would go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – is hardly the first athlete to bring politics into athletics. President Trump, though, might be the first president to let ideology cloud his ability to cheer for the home team.
Presidents have inserted policy, patriotism and politics into sports for quite some time, however. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once even said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.” (Good thing Twitter wasn’t around back then.)
According to the National Communications Association, in 2004, President George W. Bush made a direct connection between his foreign policy and a sporting event when “declared that Iraq's ability to participate in the Athens Olympics was made possible by the U.S. invasion.” Then, when the Iraqi team beat Portugal, President Bush declared at a campaign rally (2004, of course, was an election year), “The image of the Iraqi soccer team playing in this Olympics, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? [Iraq] wouldn't have been free if the United States had not acted.”
It was nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis who called out the former president for exploiting the Games for political gain. Lewis noted that the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the former Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan, and “now we're bombing Afghanistan.” (The United States was one of 66 countries that attempted to make a foreign policy statement by pulling out of 1980 Olympic games.)
High-profile sporting events also have been a venue to highlight justice in general, and civil rights for certain groups of people. It is a subtle example, but Jesse Owens’ participation and winning of four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Munich while Adolf Hitler watched is a case in point.
Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates have used their immense success and influence to call attention to an issue politicians have tried to address for the last several years: equal pay.
The effort for equal pay is not new, either in politics or in the arena. The Equal Pay Act was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and nearly five decades ago, tennis great Billie Jean King, who won 39 grand slam titles (12 singles titles, 16 women's doubles titles, and 11 mixed doubles titles), helped created the first women’s players union after crushing Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” (President Barack Obama awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making her the first female athlete ever to receive that honor.)
While delegations to major sporting events create an opportunity for good will for a president, political statements by athletes sometimes create PR nightmares for the White House.
Around the same time King was making the rounds through international center courts, U.S. Olympic track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gestured skyward while on the podium during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. They also went shoeless to indicate the need to address poverty in African American communities.
The U.S. Olympic Committee swiftly came down on Smith and Carlos after displaying the sign for the “Black Power” movement. Officials kicked Smith and Carlos out of the Games and sent them home. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage later called the action “an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States.”
The incident created a minefield for the White House, but President Lyndon Baines Johnson reacted, not with criticism, but with silence. (Though, admittedly, it was a silence that spoke volumes.)
As this Washington Post article retells the aftermath, a DC-based public relations consultant named Robert McElwaine advised the president to invite every gold medal winner, including Smith and Carlos, to the White House. (Gold medal winners were not routinely invited to the White House until 1974.)
In a memo, McElwaine said, “As a result of the action that was forced upon the U.S. Olympic Committee, a new wedge is being driven between black and white people in America. The President now has an opportunity to demonstrate to the world in general, and to the black people in particular, that the United States, while not condoning the immature act of these athletes, does not accept the extreme penalty levied by the Olympic Committee.”
The president’s secretary, Juanita Roberts, reportedly shared the proposal with White House staffers and the president special counsel advised that the White House invite the medal winners. Other aides disagreed. Ultimately the White House said, “The President’s schedule is very heavy now and in the days immediately ahead.” As can be the case on the field, there are missed opportunities in politics, too.
The Obama administration had a similar reaction – silence – when former NBA player Dennis Rodman visited with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in March 2013. Both the White House and State Department noted that diplomatic channels were open between the two nations and criticized North Korea, not Rodman. Then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “instead of spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain the elites of that country, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people who have been starved, imprisoned and denied their human rights.”
President Trump has strayed far from his predecessor’s no-comment line. The trend, however, began long before his election. As the Washington Post pointed out last year, “The Donald had a history of talking about sports and trolling professional athletes. He’s made fun of owners and general managers, cast fictional hall of fame votes, and switched alliances.” In the last five years, the president has criticized Rapinoe, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, NFL quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning, NFL referees and Rutgers defensive back Jevon Tyree. (Colin Kaepernick, of course, also has been a source of criticism.)
Many of President Trump’s criticisms of athletes and sports officials were about performance or athletic ability, but they all clearly indicate that America’s sports icons may no longer be able to count on the commander-in-chief to be the fan-in-chief.