If Trump Wins, Athletes Might Just Stop Playing

Empty stadiums are an already-familiar sight this year. Photo: Mark Brown/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a relatively high-level sports executive about the election, which is to say we were discussing something terrible Donald Trump had said or done. We agreed that Trump was likely to lose. “But he could always still win — even Nate Silver says that,” I remarked.

The executive then said something that stunned me, though the more and more I think about it, the more sense it makes. “If Trump wins, or if he refuses to concede, I’m telling you right now: There won’t be any sports for a month,” he said. “Maybe more. These kids just won’t stand for it.”

Of all the seismic sports stories during this constantly erupting year, nothing was more potentially revolutionary than the week players just stopped playing. It began when the Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott a playoff game they were about to play after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officers back in August. (What they were technically doing was striking, but the world seems to have collectively agreed to call it a boycott, so I’ll do the same here.) The players were specific and focused in their demands, explicitly asking the Wisconsin state legislature “to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” The boycott’s scope quickly expanded to include other teams in the NBA (all games for that day and the next two days were canceled) and, remarkably, other sports, including the NHL, WNBA, and even Major League Baseball. The message was clear: The league-branded #BLM and “It Takes All of Us” slogans were not enough to meet this historic moment. The players demanded action.

The thing is, though, they didn’t really end up with much. Bucks players got the Wisconsin state legislature to convene, but zero Republican senators showed up, so the whole thing was a bit of a bust. (And by then the team was back on the court, anyway.) Some players secured commitments from team owners to use their arenas as early voting sites, but while that’s been a success in some places (such as Atlanta, where Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has been personally ushering voters through the line), the plan has been thwarted in other areas by local Republican officials — in Miami’s case, the mayor. And the NFL, the league whose players started the whole trend toward activism with Colin Kaepernick’s protest, has been nearly politics-free since the season began, much to the frustration of many players.

Player activism hasn’t been a failure, though, at least not yet. Some of it has instead been channeled through LeBron James’s “More Than a Vote” campaign, which got Barack Obama involved earlier this month and has recruited more than 40,000 poll workers in addition to registering hundreds of thousands of new voters. The general strategy seems to be, Get Trump out, then figure out the next steps. As with the larger world of Democratic politics, pragmatism has been the name of the game. Nothing can be done until this election is won.

Settling for less in the near term is a reasonable strategy — as long as Joe Biden wins. But what happens if Trump overcomes his long odds and does somehow prevail? I think you will see the largest and most expensive athlete protest in the history of sports. I agree with my executive friend: I think they will simply refuse to play.

One can argue about the effectiveness of such a move. But a Trump victory would, I suspect, change sports for a generation. Trump’s numbers with Black men and young people are the lowest among any demographic group (despite some recent gains in the former category), and those groups are of course the backbone of the NBA and other sports. James has maneuvered himself into a position of considerable political power — at this point, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him run for some sort of office when his career is over — and that power is not going to abate if Trump wins. But it won’t be LeBron sitting out immediately after Trump is elected: The next NBA season, after all, is still many months out.

No, it’ll be football — the pros and maybe college — that would set the tone. The disparity between NFL players (70 percent Black) and NFL owners (0 percent Black) was a potentially combustible dynamic in the league long before Colin Kaepernick, and it’s not difficult to imagine it exploding in the wake of a Trump victory considering how many owners are Trump supporters and donors, how little traction protests have gotten this current season, and how much ill will there still is about the way the NFL handled the Kaepernick situation. The NFL messaging machine has tried to absorb the activism happening around it without too much disruption to the sport. But another Trump victory could blow up the delicate balancing act commissioner Roger Goodell has been attempting to pull off. It could set the league ablaze. And college football could not be far behind. Remember, many still believe the real reason the Big Ten and Pac-12 originally canceled their seasons (before reversing course) was not due to COVID but because a small minority of players were threatening to boycott the season while demanding a reckoning on racial justice. That spark has not been extinguished, even if they didn’t follow through on their threat. A Trump victory could relight it and engulf everything.

What does this look like in practice? It’s difficult to say. Let’s say Trump wins next Tuesday. The protests and unrest inevitably erupting in the streets would be impossible to ignore, and NFL players, angry and desperate, would want to be a part of the movement. Forgoing that Sunday’s games — or at the very least the scheduled Thursday game — feel like the least of it. (It is perhaps not the best sign that the reelection of a president would be greeted by wide swaths of the public with the same gravity as 9/11 was.) How would NFL brass react? Would the solidarity with Black Lives Matter evaporate when confronted with four more years of Trump tweeting about kneeling players? It would be an existential crisis for the league: furious players, Trump-supporting owners, and a massive boycott smack in the middle of the season. It’s difficult to imagine a way out — particularly because Trump would be a source of constant fuel for the fire.

But it might not even take a Trump victory to stop the games. Imagine if, after next Tuesday, the election is close enough that Trump doesn’t concede but the result is clear enough that it is widely understood that he should. Trump’s team is likely to flood the zone with lawsuits and misinformation in an attempt to overwhelm an already-fried electorate into shutting everything out and attempting to carry on with normal-ish life amid the madness. That seems an ideal time for sports to take a stand, and many athletes would refuse to sit idly by.

No matter what happens, it’s clear that the transition from the fierce activism of the summer to the #vote movement in sports has been constructed largely to stop the president. When an NBA or NFL player or coach is making a plea for you to register to vote and make your voice heard, there is an implicit subtext: Not Trump. This strategy has been delivered from the top down, likely in part as a result from James’s many conversations with Barack Obama in the wake of the NBA boycott. It checks out: Obama’s signature anti-Trump message always comes down to “Vote.” And that’s all great if it works. But if it doesn’t? If players still can’t make their voices heard? Look out. There will be a reckoning. I agree with my friend: The games will stop.

If Trump Wins, Athletes Might Just Stop Playing