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An Unsporting Presidency

Donald Trump is the school yard bully who bullies all around him until he comes up against the big boys in the school yard, the football jocks, and against them he meets his match! His tasteless tirade against football players who chose to kneel rather than stand for the national anthem has backfired on Trump. 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 football players and owners defied Trump’s despotic diatribe.

The thin skinned Trump takes everything personal and his recent attacks on NFL 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 football league to rival the NFL, now he’s wading into the sport again, but with even greater consequences. Trump’s tasteless tactics to ruffle feathers within the NFL today reflects the type of regime currently wedging a great divide in American society.

Sport is a tool to bring people together even in a country as divisive as the United States of America. 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 Taft began the tradition of throwing the first pitch of the opening day of the baseball season.  During WWII President Roosevelt ordered  the baseball league to continue as normal throughout the war years in order to keep American moral high. In the 1950s President Eisenhower used sport as tool to cool the burgeoning Cold War when he ordered the national hockey team to play an exhibition match in the Soviet Union. Many presidents were sportsmen in their own right, notably in the discipline of football. Gerald Ford almost became a professional football player while Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Nixon were star athletes in the world of college football. In the case of President Teddy Roosevelt he helped save the sport from extinction.

In 1905 President Roosevelt saved the game of American football when calls for its abolishment were growing. The case of 18 deaths on the field of play in 1905 resulted in the president wading into the sport and he called the heads of Princeton, Yale and Harvard 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 American 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While a reception for white athletes was held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, gold wining 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 President Eisenhower awarded Owens with the title of national Ambassador for Sport and in 1976  he was given a medal of freedom from President 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 Star Spangled Banner.

1968 was a volatile year in America 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 (Johnson) and the arrival of another (Nixon). Also on the podium that day in Mexico was Australian silver medalist 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 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 Clinton, refering to the Commander in chief as a baby killer!

President Obama also suffered snubs from invited athletes to The White House during his tenure but unlike the current president, Obama 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 disUnited States of America and sport is the latest victim in his cultural attack.

Some years ago President 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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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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