No Wonder Athletes Are Shutting Up About Politics

Photo: Chris Putnam/Future Publishing via Getty Images

During the 2009 World Baseball Classic, I witnessed my friend Meredith, as die-hard a Red Sox fan as I’ve ever met in my life, say something I would have thought unfathomable.

“Let’s go, Jeter!” she yelled at the television screen, which marked the first time I’d ever heard her utter Derek Jeter’s name in a sentence that didn’t feature an unprintable word either before or after it. She actually stopped herself afterward and asked, “What has happened to me?” Then Jeter got a single, and she cheered for him. The ultimate Sawx fan was applauding for Public Enemy No. 1.

Why? Because Jeter wasn’t wearing a Yankees uniform. He was wearing a uniform with “USA” on it, playing against a rival on the global stage. The understanding was that, when Jeter represented the United States, she was on his side — no matter how much hatred she and every other Red Sox fan harbored for him in every other context (and it was a lot of hatred!). That’s what it’s supposed to mean to play for a national team: It’ll make a Red Sox fan cheer for Derek Jeter.

Suffice it to say: It does not mean that anymore. I thought about my friend Meredith last weekend when, after the United States National Women’s Team’s heartbreaking loss to Sweden, conservative commentators — and the former president of the United States — lined up to mock them. The biggest target was retiring USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, long a Trump critic, who (along with many others) missed a penalty kick. “Nice shot, Megan,” Trump “wrote” on Truth Social, “the USA is going to Hell!!!”

Rapinoe, like all USWNT players, makes more money playing for the national team than she does for her club team — largely because of the Equal Pay fight she helped spearhead. But there has always been an understanding that representing the U.S. goes beyond money. (Steph Curry, who makes far more in the NBA than he does in any international competition, caught flak for skipping the Tokyo Olympics and resting during his offseason instead.) It’s a way for athletes to serve a cause larger than themselves and to transcend any domestic rivalries. It’s the only way A-Rod could ever be the good guy. “No question, you definitely have a sense of pride when you’re wearing the uniform of your country and you go out on the field and listen to the national anthem,” Jeter said in 2009. “It is something I wish everyone got the chance to experience.”

Cut to today, when you can be called unpatriotic and anti-American literally while wearing “Team USA” on your chest. (I’m reminded of the time a reporter once asked Barack Obama if he considered himself patriotic. “Well, I’m the president of the United States,” Obama said. “So yes.”) We have actually reached a point where an American star, one of the best players in the country’s history, loses a game and gets mocked by a former president with a sniggering, snide “Nice shot, Megan,” like every meathead sports talk radio caller you’ve ever heard.

This is a signature of the Trump era: Trump has been mocking Rapinoe (and LeBron James, and Curry, and any athlete who dared criticize him) for years now, and Fox News commentators were actively rooting against the USWNT in Tokyo. That’s a reaction not just to Rapinoe’s criticism of Trump, but the widespread athlete political activism we saw during the 2020 election, which overwhelmingly targeted Trump (who had been dining out on criticizing kneeling athletes for years, once even saying they should “drag the sonsabitches off the field”) and which some credit (not entirely convincingly) with helping swing the election to Joe Biden thanks to increased voter registration initiatives in cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia. On-field failures — whether it’s the USWNT losing or LeBron not reaching the NBA Finals — have become yet another bit of ammo in the forever “go woke, go broke” culture war.

And the animus has lasted well past the moment of peak athlete activism. This year at the World Cup, not a single player on the USWNT knelt during the National Anthem. The team made a point of directing their focus to on-field issues this year; even Rapinoe, in the midst of a farewell tour at the end of her incredible career, mostly left politics at home. But it didn’t matter. Trump and other “conservative” commentators felt there were political points to be scored at their expense anyway. So they did so. Thus, a deeply disappointing early exit from the World Cup that was greeted with mocking jeers from many of their countrymen, who were actively cheering against them.

In other words: If you speak out on politics, you’re mocked and called unpatriotic. If you try to then focus solely on the games while wearing an American jersey, you’re mocked and called unpatriotic. Perhaps the USWNT tried to move on from its Trump-era activism, but their haters aren’t done with them yet.

Which brings us, inevitably, to 2024 and another election. In the wake of 2020, the most political sports year ever, Rapinoe isn’t the only athlete trying to remove themselves from the fray. LeBron James, who has been a Fox News punching bag for years, has taken a huge step back from the political arena over the last year. On the other end of the political spectrum, Aaron Rodgers is trying to soften off his political edges and play nice. Leagues are doing the same thing: After their high-profile decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Georgia over a voter-suppression bill, Major League Baseball is widely expected to award the Braves the game sometime in the next couple of years. Athletes are people with political beliefs like everybody else, but they also have to thrive in an extremely competitive field, in careers with a short, evaporating lifespan. Speaking out in 2020 led to a backlash — or, in sports terminology, an “off-field distraction” — that is still wafting around years later. Are they going to want to enter that maelstrom again?

The USWNT is a perfect example of the costs of doing so — even if your cause is righteous. You can turn down the political rhetoric and focus on representing your country, and you’ll still have half the country cheering against you. It is becoming increasingly clear that the sports world, unlike the 2020 election, may well sit this next election out. It’s not difficult to see why and hard to blame them. Nice shot, Megan.

No Wonder Athletes Are Shutting Up About Politics