Nicholas Stoll: Donald Trump has the right to politicize sports. Athletes do too.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 10:38pm

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Michigan.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Michigan. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Politics and sports aren’t separate.

As much as you might want them to be, they aren’t. They never have been and never will be. As long as athletics draw in millions of viewers nationwide of all political persuasions, both politicians and athletes will use it as a platform to push their respective agendas.

Recently, you’ve likely heard of President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring back Big Ten football in order to appeal to fans in the Midwest.

Whether or not Trump can actually do anything to bring football back to the Big Ten is debatable, but the intent is logical. He is a politician making a political move in an attempt to gain voters, and that’s justified based simply on his goal to get re-elected.

Joe Biden, too, is running an ad politicizing Big Ten football. Biden takes a stance in blaming Trump for the lack of the sport this fall.

And it’s obvious to see why: Six states — Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that contain Big Ten football teams are considered battleground states per The New York Times. Trump went on to attack Democratic governors of blue-leaning states to frame their stance as non-supportive to football.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with Trump. Actually, I think canceling football was the right choice. But we can’t pretend like a president politicizing sports is new or unjustified.

The White House visit for champions of major sports leagues is a perfect example. It started all the way back in 1865, per ESPN, with Andrew Johnson as President. Johnson invited the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals, two amateur baseball clubs, to the White House. It built up until Ronald Reagan made it a regular tradition during his term.

Presidents gain political ‘points’ by doing this. They appeal to that sport’s fanbase by inviting league champions to hopefully gain approval and voters. It’s not some secret formula.

It’s even grown in recent years. Barack Obama, for example, made a tradition of making a March Madness bracket. His picks were broadcast for people to watch and enjoy. This created solidarity with the college basketball community and allowed fans to relate to the president, in turn raising his approval. Sure, Obama and many former presidents could have done these visits and events for their own enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t gain from it. Trump could simply enjoy football, but that doesn’t mean he can’t gain from it too.

Now, there’s two sides to every coin. A politician being able to politicize sports gives freedom to any athlete or otherwise to use sports as a platform for their own political agenda.

Does this mean NBA players can boycott games and put “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their jerseys? Yes.

What about college athletes like Michigan players organizing a march for “Black Lives Matter” and protesting in the Diag? Again, yes.

And that soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Team can speak out for fair pay, LGBTQ+ rights and even say “I’m not going to the fucking White House” even though they represent our country? 

The answer is always yes — and Megan Rapinoe did all of it after they won the World Cup in 2019.

So the same way politicians use sports for gain, athletes have historically used sports for progress. Some infamous events have spurred nationwide debate and can force issues into the public eye. This creates discourse leading to change. 

It’s just athletes, like Michigan senior defensive back Hunter Reynolds, taking advantage of the platform that they’re given; one which is automatically earned by being an athlete and being thrust into the public spotlight. Everybody — politician, athlete or otherwise — has a right to their own platform.

If you choose to use that platform to talk to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and appeal to voters, that’s OK. If you choose to use it to kneel for our national anthem, that’s OK. If you choose not to use it and say things such as “Republican buy sneakers too” like Michael Jordan did, that’s OK too.

What isn’t OK is being hypocritical by denying one side or the other’s right to mix politics and sports while uplifting your preferred side.

Stoll can be reached at nkstoll@umich.edu or on Twitter @nkstoll.