Sports and Politics Have Always Been Intertwined
A sports fan who did not appreciate this column’s reference to the Fox network’s discourteous interview of President Obama during the Super Bowl pre-game show last month insists that sports and politics be separated from each other and that sports journalists stop writing of political issues.
To never mention political involvement in the world of sports would be akin to asking an astronomer to lecture on our solar system without speaking about Jupiter and Mars.
Historically, sports and politics have been bonded like Siamese twins since before the great city states of ancient Greece engaged in inter-city athletic competitions when they weren’t engaged in destructive wars against one another.
Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush were avid golfers. Barack Obama is also a weekend hacker.
The PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and the USGA are very politically related organizations as presidents, congressmen, governors and other leading national political figures swarm all over golf tournaments every week of the season and do so in droves during major tournaments, such as the U.S. Open.
Our modern Olympic Games are the most obvious examples of international politics mixing with sports. The World Cup soccer is another show of big time national political rivalries.
The worst example of Olympic xenophobia occurred during the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin during what has been derisively called “Hitler’s Olympics.”
Hitler and his Nazis were going to prove to the world how much better their Aryans were than those lesser humans from democracies and other decadent places. Then the wonderful African-American from Ohio, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals in Berlin’s Olympiastadion right before the dumbfounded, mustached psychopath, who reacted by saying, “The Americans should be ashamed of themselves letting Negroes win their medals for them.”
Hitler, the 20th century’s greatest loser, touted victory over Americans in three subsequent major sporting events shortly before he started World War II. In each case his Aryan athlete was soundly whipped.
Gottfried von Cramm was trounced in three straight sets in the 1937 Wimbledon final by America’s Don Budge and beaten again by Budge two months later in five sets at the U.S. Championship final in Forest Hills, N.Y.
The biggest athletic blow to the daft little Fuhrer’s corrupt jingoism came the night of June 22, 1938, before more than 70,000 people in Yankee Stadium. That was when Joe Louis pounded the living daylights out of Max Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds of the first round before the German’s corner threw in the towel, ending the heavyweight championship bout. Hitler had insisted that no African-American could beat an Aryan hero.
The 45-year long Cold War between Russia and the West was manifested in a political sense during each of the Olympic Games over that period, including the 1980 summer games, when President Jimmy Carter ordered us to boycott the Moscow Olympics because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, Russia and its communist East European allies retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
A few months before the Moscow summer Olympics, we Americans began to believe in miracles.
Nothing since the Louis-Schmeling fight was so politically rewarding for American sports pride as the “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., when we defeated the mighty Soviet Union hockey team, 4-3, with a bunch of amateur college players. Mike Eruzione got the winning goal with 10 minutes to go in the hockey game. The U.S. then beat Finland to take the gold medal, while the Soviet Union, considered the best team in the world, got the silver.
Politics and sports are inseparable.
President Theodore Roosevelt reacted strongly, 105 years ago, to the increasing brutality in college football. Young men were not only suffering serious injuries, but a number of them were being killed. The flying wedge offense was blamed for much of this mayhem on the gridirons.
So Teddy Roosevelt called a number of college presidents to the White House in 1906 and told them to make the game safer or he would outlaw football. They got the message, eliminated the flying wedge, legalized the forward pass and created the National Collegiate Athletic Association to govern football rules.
Four years later, Teddy’s successor, William Howard Taft, became the first president to throw out the ball on opening day of the Major League Baseball season, April 14, 1910. Our presidents have been doing that ever since.
Also, presidents like to invite championship teams such as the World Series winners, the Super Bowl winners, the National Basketball Association champions, Olympic gold medalists, etc., to the White House for a visit. This is worth plenty of Brownie points in the world of politics. Leading athletes and coaches are often among the celebrities invited to state dinners at the White House.
During a recent press conference involving Presidents Obama and Felipe Calderone of Mexico, the first question to President Obama was whether or not he would get involved in the National Football League’s labor dispute between team owners and players. He said, “No.” By asking the question, the reporter indicated that no one thought it would be strange if the country’s politician in chief got involved in the NFL problem.
The other two branches of the federal government have been known to stick their lengthy noses into sports activities.
The Supreme Court, as political as the president and the Congress, ruled in 1922 that Major League Baseball was exempt from restrictions placed upon monopolies by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. This freedom from antitrust laws has remained a part of MLB ever since. Yet no other professional sports leagues have been given exemption from antitrust laws. MLB has, at times, profited from its political connections.
Congressmen can’t keep their fingers off sports because of the exposure they get from investigating athletes or hobnobbing with them. Either way, politicians feel they can get plenty of bounce by appearing friendly with Derek Jeter or angry with Roger Clemens. Congress has spent hours and hours on hearings about performance-enhancing drugs in MLB.
The latest Congressional move into sports came when the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to cut approximately $60 billion from the coming fiscal year’s budget. Those big-talking congressmen, who actually promised to vote a $100 billion cut, came up short for many reasons. The shortfall was because they, like politicians throughout history, had pet projects that they dared not cut. One such item was saved when they decided to continue paying about $30 million of taxpayers’ money for military sponsorship of NASCAR teams.
The Army expects to spend $7.5 million to sponsor Ryan Newman’s No. 39 car team, while the National Guard will pay $20 million to back Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team, and the Air Force expects to put out $1.6 to sponsor A.J. Allmendinger’s team.
These NASCAR expenditures are, according to the Pentagon, good for recruiting. Actually, that vote was because the great majority of NASCAR fans vote Republican or have tea bags hanging off their hats. Politics and sports are in bed together.
However, the mix of politics and sports isn’t always a bad thing. Such was the case 40 years ago when sports led to improving Chinese-American relations. The United States table tennis team, which was in Tokyo for the world championships in May 1971, was invited to go to China for some friendly exhibition matches with Chinese players, who were rated as the world’s best.
What became known as the act of “ping pong diplomacy” led to the meeting a year later in China between President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong. Things are far from perfect in this association. But ever since that “ping pong diplomacy,” these two powers have been talking, negotiating and doing business. That is better than the chilly lack of rapport between China and the USA prior to 1971.
These are but a few examples of the good and the bad when sports and politics mix.
Separate sports from politics? Sorry, no can do.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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