There’s a lot going on in American sports right now. There are happy stories (the brilliance of Shohei Ohtani, the appearance of two likable underdogs with long-suffering fanbases in the NBA Finals) — and not-so-happy ones (the suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson, the horrific allegations of assault facing Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer). But I wonder if the biggest event that took place over the July 4 weekend was something hardly anyone noticed at all. On Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers visited the White House to celebrate their 2020 World Series title. They sure looked like they had fun.
And — this is the big part — hardly anyone noticed at all. It’s not like there was a whole lot to notice: The team gave President Biden a Dodgers jersey with the No. 46 on it, he made a joke about Vice-President Harris being a Giants fan, Clayton Kershaw gave a brief, unmemorable speech. (Though reliever Joe Kelly did wear quite the jacket.) The Dodgers were the first championship team to visit the White House during the Biden administration, and the whole thing was very Biden: dull, efficient, a little cheesy, and wholly, entirely normal.
It was the quiet restoration of a tradition that Donald Trump essentially destroyed. No NBA championship team ever visited the White House during the Trump presidency — not after Stephen Curry proclaimed he wouldn’t go in the aftermath of the Warriors’ first title, with Trump then rescinding the invitation and LeBron James chiming in to call Trump “U Bum.” College football teams did make the trip, but many seemed to do so under duress; no women’s basketball champions were ever invited, for the first time in decades. For all the talk of his supposed Trumpism, Tom Brady skipped every trip to see the president, as did many of his teammates. The nadir may have been when the Boston Red Sox visited — but essentially only the white players. USWNT star Megan Rapinoe famously summed up the athlete consensus: When asked what the team would do if they won the World Cup, she said, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” (Trump responded by saying Rapinoe should “win before she talks.” She did end up winning. She still didn’t go to the fucking White House.)
There was no drama this time. Almost all the Dodgers were there, no one made any sort of stink, and the whole thing may have never crossed your social-media feed at all. This was a sign that sports, ever so slowly, are getting back to a pre-Trump version of normal. And that normal, for better or worse, means less politics.
2020 was the most activist sports year in modern history, with ramifications that will last for decades to come. But the extent to which it may have been an aberration is becoming clearer. The essence of sports — and the very appeal of the thing to its consumers — is about keeping the real world distant and outside the playing field. Players want to play, executives want to sell tickets, owners want to stay away from controversial topics, and everyone wants to make money. While certain sports may lean more “conservative” (golf, NASCAR, baseball) and others more “liberal” (basketball, soccer, even tennis), at the end of the day, all sports involve intensely focused competitors who make their living by shutting out everything to focus on their craft. LeBron James may be one of the most politically active athletes in the history of sports, but when he’s on the free-throw line, he isn’t thinking about social activism — he’s thinking about making that free throw. Inertia is always going to push anything that’s not about sports away from sports. Certain years are more tumultuous than others, but water is always going to find its level. And sports may be the last place in America where the default setting remains “political agnosticism.”
Like most of the rest of the country — emphasis on most — the political temperature in sports is undeniably lower post-Trump. This was what many sports executives were hoping for, and even betting on. For all the talk of mass boycotts from conservatives, Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from the Atlanta suburbs to Denver in the wake of Georgia’s voting-suppression law hasn’t had any side effects at all. The sport’s ratings are up from last year, the right-wing commentariat (as predicted) has moved on to some other end-of-America outrage, and the league gets to spend the week of build-up to the game talking about Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. rather than voting rights. The move to Denver did precisely what MLB hoped it would: It allowed them to focus on baseball, not politics.
There are still political flare-ups in sports, but they mostly feel like bad-faith actors trying to replay the greatest hits of years past. The most recent “controversy” involved the USWNT, in their last match before heading for the Olympics, supposedly “protesting” the national anthem and a World War II veteran who was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a harmonica. Paris Dennard, the national spokesperson for the Republican Party, called it “SHAMEFUL,” and it started a whole Newsmax kerfuffle. The worst people you know all piled on.
Thing is: It was entirely untrue. The team’s grand gesture of disrespect was actually an illusion caused by the overhead camera, which didn’t show the flag on the other side of the stadium that the team was actually facing. This was the obvious interpretation for anyone who, like me, was watching the game, and it wouldn’t occur to any reasonable person that anything else was happening. But when you’ve been a jackass hammer for five years now, everything looks like a nail. A nail you keep missing while thwacking your own thumb.
That the USWNT, a longtime target in the right-wing world, was trotted back out as a pretend villain was telling: For all the talk of these commentators claiming that athletes are dragging politics into sports, they’re the ones injecting “controversy” wherever they can. That a clearly fake national anthem story is the best they have is a sign not just that they’re desperate, but a sign that they just don’t have that much to hold onto at the moment.
This is not to say that political activism will suddenly vanish from sports, nor that it should. The upcoming Olympics is already poised to be a hotbed of political imagery, as the Olympics always are, even with the IOC (but not, tellingly, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee) trying to crack down on political speech. Organizations like More Than a Vote will remain active, particularly building up to the 2022 elections. The WNBA, in particular, has recognized activism as not just the right thing to do, but as economically advantageous. Athletes recognize their power; their voices will be heard. But also, you know, it’s not an election year, and they’re not in the middle of a pandemic for the first time in two years. Can you blame them for taking a little bit of a breather?
Like the rest of us, American sports are trying to return to some semblance of normal, and in sports, that normal, for better or worse, entails silly, harmless championship trips to the White House and big soccer games where everyone just stands and faces the flag during the national anthem so they can just get back to the game. Many fights are on the horizon. But political activism and engagement are just not at the fever pitch they were a year ago. At the moment, almost everyone just wants to play.