A few days ago, Ben White of Politico made a tweet that got me thinking:
One possible reaction to this is to dismiss it, because this wouldn’t seem to make it onto any reasonable list of things that are weird about Trump’s presidency. Some people like sports, some don’t, and at any rate in politics sports have generally been used as just another humanizing affectation, a set of rote keywords politicians recite to convince us that they’re just like us. I admit this works on me—I’m a sports fan, and I like feeling that my representatives are, well, just like me—but intellectually, I know it’s silly: obviously, having a lot of spare attention to give to sports is not really a recommendation for someone who wants to take on the most important and mentally taxing job in the world. Furthermore, it’s unavoidably gendered: it is for the moment still true that sports fans are more likely to be men than women, so the fact that politicians are expected to be conversant in them but not in more stereotypically female interests is a problematic double standard.
At the same time, sports are culture, and the ways we consume culture—or even pretend to consume it—tell something about us. In spring of 2009, I listened to Barack Obama speaking with the hosts of an opening day broadcasts and describing his love for the White Sox; when they asked him about his favorite White Sox; he uncomfortably dodged the question, making it clear that he simply didn’t know any: though a genuine basketball fan, his supposed love of southside Chicago baseball was pure affectation. Listening, I cringed, not just because of the inherent awkwardness of the moment but also because it revealed something unflattering about him: his overconfidence in his ability to wing it (didn’t he know he’d be asked to follow up?). That didn’t sink his presidency, but I think it’s fair to say a lack of preparation made his first term a lot less successful than it could have been. When Carly Fiorina tweeted before the 2016 Rose Bowl that, even though she was a Stanford grad, she had to root for Iowa to beat them, it was the final nail in her already doomed campaign, because it showed she was not just a panderer but an ineffective panderer, someone who thought that people love it when you make it clear you’re telling them what they want to hear. A politician’s engagement with sports gives us data just like anything else.
So dismissal wasn’t the reaction I had to White’s tweet about Trump. My reaction was that, while White seems to be right that Trump doesn’t care much about sports (except golf—but more on that in a moment), he cares a lot about sports figures. He’ll tout any relationship with any athlete, coach, or owner, even those who are despicable human beings, like Bob Knight or Ben Roethlisberger. Is it meaningful that Trump cares about these sports celebrities but not about the actual games that make them famous? I think it is. No one really believes that Trump thinks that Meryl Streep is a bad actress; he called her one because she criticized him on stage. His shot at her revealed him even more as someone to whom the entire concept of culture is foreign, except insofar as it feeds or bruises his ego. Similarly, Trump is incapable of caring about sports themselves, because those are narratives at which he is not at the center. His ability to know who these sports celebrities are without caring about the only thing that makes them celebrities to begin with is just another window on his narcissism, the way that nothing in his life other than self-aggrandizement gives him any meaning or happiness.
(This helps explain his interest in golf, as I mentioned earlier. Golf is an individual sport, of course, but it’s also inextricably bound up with business (including but not limited to his business), with the outward markers of wealth, and with important people hobnobbing with him. Even then, as far as I know he has no particular appreciation of any particular golfer’s technique or skills, apart from how their greatness rubs off on him.)
This week, of course, the news is dominated by Trump’s continual crowing about his friendship with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Bob Kraft, the Patriots’ quarterback, coach, and owner, respectively. (That’s another thing—who else would discuss players, coaches, and owners in exactly the same way, and entirely in relation to their friendship with the speaker?) And so interest in the Super Bowl is taking a particularly political tone this year: rooting for the Patriots is taken to be equivalent to rooting for Donald Trump.
Personally, I find this last narrative kind of annoying, since it seems to me another case of using sports to trivialize, rather than elevate, significant issues like racism. It’s at least convenient, I guess, that the Trump support is all on the side of the insufferable dynasty that everyone outside of New England already hates. Rooting for business franchises owned by billionaires and marketing a stew of patriotism, traditionalism, and masculinity is going to involve us all in a lot of quandaries, so I resent Trump for (add another on the pile) making it seem so morally easy.
But that doesn’t lead me to agree with Ben Domenech, editor of the archconservative magazine The Federalist, when he argues for leaving sports as a respite from politics. While I’m not at all sympathetic to Domenech’s politics, I am, unlike some I’ve seen, sympathetic to his request. It is true, at least for me, that paying attention to politics saps one’s ability to take an interest in sports. During the primary last year I found it very hard to focus on sports; now that Trump is president I find it hard to focus on, well, anything else, and that makes maintaining this blog a struggle. It’s natural to want an escape from that and I don’t blame anyone for treating sports as that escape.
But to ask that sports commentary leave politics aside, that the entire sports world be turned into a political DMZ, is wrong, and insidious. Politics are at work in sports constantly; they bear on race, on violence against women, and of course on labor and economics. In fact, it’s by treating sports as an unpolitical space, a matter of pure common ground, that sports owners and their political cronies are able to wring money out of local governments. The president’s cozy relationship with billionaires, his business conflicts, his attacks on the diversity that underlies (and is exploited by) professional sports…all of this is on view at the Super Bowl and throughout the sporting world. There is nothing apolitical about ignoring it; it’s the most cynical kind of political silencing, like the calls not to discuss gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, out of respect for the dead.
To paraphrase Trotsky, Trump may not be interested in sports, but sports are interested in him. We don’t see politics in sports because we’re hopelessly partisan; we see politics in sports because it’s there, and when you build the habit of looking at sports with open eyes, that habit tends to follow you around.