Donald Trump, who is leaving office on Wednesday — and I’m just going to type that again because it makes my fingers feel good — Donald Trump, who is leaving office on Wednesday, was undeniably successful in one aspect of his presidency: Making sure he injected himself into every facet of American life, ensuring that no matter your professional pursuit or station in life, you could not avoid him. Cultural omnipresence may have been his primary goal in all this, and he was remarkably good at achieving it.
From the beginning, the world of sports —a universe Trump has been connected to as long as he’s been connected to anything — felt the vibrations of Trump’s presence as if he were a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the distance. And throughout his four years, he loomed over the NFL, NBA, and almost everywhere else. No matter how much the average fan might have wanted to Stick To Sports, Trump never failed to shove his tiny little hands into every major story, from the Cubs winning the World Series (the team’s owner hosted a fundraiser for Trump at Wrigley Field) to the Americans dominating at the Women’s World Cup (which ended up feeling like an active fuck-you to Trump) to a college football season that he took credit for making happen while top-tier coaches bragged about watching One America News. He was everywhere. God, he was always everywhere.
On Wednesday, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States and will promptly go about trying to fix everything Trump broke over the last four years. He’ll repair a lot of the damage. But he won’t get to all of it. Trump will be with us for years, even long after he’s gone. And that fact is as true in sports as it is in politics or anywhere else. In four short years, Trump changed certain aspects of the sports world forever. And, in some cases, that’s not even necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s how the sports world is different After Trump.
Stick to Sports is dead. This is not to say that every sporting event you watch is going to involve detailed discussions of the Hatch Act. But the idea that it’s possible to wall off “sports conversations” from “conversations about what’s happening in the world” was rendered ridiculous by the Trump era. By the end of his term, Major League Baseball had #blm painted on the pitcher’s mound, players were boycotting playoff games because of police shootings, and announcers were openly castigating the federal response to the pandemic. (This was also a fine time to discover which of your favorite college-football columnists were alt-right science denialists.) Fans will always want to turn to sports as a reprieve from the worries of the day: I will confess it will be nice to watch the Super Bowl without spending the first quarter still fuming about whatever crazy shit Trump said in the pregame interview. But the notion that politics are a part of sports because politics are a part of everything is now so painfully obvious that anyone who tries to claim otherwise loses all standing as a serious person arguing in anything resembling good faith. (That’s to say: Those people will probably end up with their own sports debate shows.)
The White House team visit will never go back to normal. Since Reagan, until Trump, the occasion of a championship team visiting the White House had been banal, uncontroversial and even a little silly: A few stray winners had protested Presidents Bush and Obama in the past, but on the whole, teams were very happy to go and get t their pictures taken with the leader of the free world. The ritual was even captured in video game form in NBA2k11, to the reported delight of President Obama.
But those days are over. The Golden State Warriors skipped out on meeting Trump twice — but did stop and visit Obama instead — and USWNT star Megan Rapinoe said, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” College teams kept showing up, most memorably Clemson, for whom Trump acquired an infamous fast food meal during the government shutdown, But even that visit highlighted a new divide, with two-thirds of the team’s Black players refusing to go. (The split among the Boston Red Sox was even more stark when they visited: All the white players showed up, but nearly every Black and Latino player skipped it, including manager Alex Cora, who said, “I don’t feel comfortable celebrating in the White House.” Biden will surely try to bring this tradition back to normal, but the fact that it’s likely to remain an open discussion as to who will show up to the White House and who won’t is a lasting Trump legacy. Speaking of which …
A whole generation of fiercely engaged athletes fighting for social justice … and getting rewarded for it.
One of the central insights of LeBron James and his More Than a Vote organization was not just that athletes, particularly Black athletes, wanted to be politically involved, but that it would in fact become trendy — even beneficial – for them to do so. Long gone are the days when athletes would live by some version of Michael Jordan’s famous maxim that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” (Jordan denied saying this for years, but it turns out he did.) If an NBA player uttered those words today, he’d be excoriated. Standing up for social justice, and against Trump, became a badge of honor for athletes, an achievement unlocked, and eventually so prevalent that it felt as common as an alley-oop. The WNBA, without question the most politically active sports league in the country (there are many people who had never heard of Raphael Warnock until the Atlanta Dream all wore “Vote Warnock” shirts, in defiance of their team’s owner, Kelly Loeffler), had the highest ratings for its WNBA Finals in the history of the league. And with the success that organizations like More Than a Vote and others had in opening up NBA arenas for early voting, which improved turnout in the general election and may have played a pivotal role in the Georgia runoffs, athletes see that their activism can actually have tangible effects. This is just the beginning. This activism had been brewing for years, but Trump, as always, was the catalyzing agent.
The continued erosion of golf.
Between 2002 and 2016, the number of active, regular golfers in the United States, fell from 30 million to 20.9 million, according to Bloomberg.You tell me: Do Donald Trump’s constant trips to his golf courses, including the famous one he took the very second Biden was declared the President-elect, seem like something that made golf more popular? Golf has always been well-liked among presidents—including Biden, by the way—but under Trump, the game became the symbol of his indifference to the suffering of Americans under his rule, the fiddling he did as everything burned around him. (IThat’s why it’s fitting that the coldest cut of all in his final days came from the PGA.) For two decades, the most famous golfer in the world was Tiger Woods. Now it’s Donald Trump. That cannot be good.
The slow, but clear, encroachment of the #MeToo movement into sports. Electing a man accused of many, many sexual assaults to the White House helped seed the #MeToo movement that, after the Harvey Weinstein allegations exploded, rocked the world of finance, media, politics and Hollywood. Sports, at first, was slow to get on board. This made tragic sense: No institution in American life is more dominated by men, and as resistant to self-examination.. But this, too, has slowly begun to change. The Houston Astros’ scandal last year kicked off with the firing of an executive who yelled “I’m so fucking glad we got [accused domestic abuser Roberto] Osuna!” at a group of women sportswriters, and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was pushed out of the league after repeated reports of sexual harassment. (They even took down a statue he put up of himself outside his stadium.) Just on Tuesday morning, the Mets fired new general manager Jared Porter after Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan at ESPN broke the story that he’d sent explicit unsolicited texts to a reporter four years ago. There was a time, not long ago, when such a story would have been ignored, or shoved under the rug. (Brett Favre skated on this sort of thing just a few years ago.) In a marker of how thoroughly times have changed, Porter was fired eight hours after the story dropped, and surely would have been dropped even faster had the story not broken late at night. There is still a long, long way to go in sports. But there has been unquestionable progress since 2016.
Nobody trusts sports media.
Yelling at sports reporters used to be just something people did out of allegiance to their teams. But now, after four years of unrelenting assault on truth, Trump has gotten an alarmingly large percentage of the populace not only to distrust reporters, but to think of them as actual enemies. If your job is to write about things that are true, it immediately makes you a target of people who just don’t want to hear it. There’s a strong argument that the best sports reporter of 2020 was Nicole Auerbach at The Athletic, who broke story after story about how college athletic administrators were ignoring the safety of their players and their fans in the process during the pandemic. And what has Auerbach gotten from the public for her consistent excellence? She has been harrassed, constantly, for being too “anti-sports,” for hating sports, for trying to get sports shut down, and of course simply for being a woman writing about sports. Trump has made the act of open warfare on those who say anything that people do not want to hear commonplace, He has called the media “enemies of the people,” and sports media is not exempt in his supporters’ eyes.
A catastrophically mismanaged pandemic that will set sports back.
In the end, it’s probably best to keep it simple. A once-in-a-century plague hit our shores, and Trump’s federal response was so feckless, even non-existent, that sports—which tend to take place in front of thousands of people, crammed together—was as ripped apart as almost every industry. Sports will never be the same after the pandemic, and the primary reason for that Trump’s incompetent, actively corrosive response. There are people in the world of sports who will miss Trump. But the people in charge, the people who have to stage these games and sell them? For them, he can’t be gone soon enough. I know how they feel.