Before Covid-19 and the sobering death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump was reasonably likely to serve a second term. The economy was booming, unemployment was low, taxes were cut, the country extricated itself from military commitments abroad and terrorism had been suppressed. (left, President Trump honoring Clemson’s championship team in 2017)
Though Trump was criticized throughout his presidency, the focus of the opposition shifted to race after Floyd’s death. Riots raged in American cities, curfews were set, stores were looted, law enforcement officers were attacked and liberal politicians called for defunding the police.
Opponents argued that Trump never voiced disapproval of purported police brutality and that minorities were left out of the president’s agenda. The president was attacked for allegedly overlooking racist attacks or nurturing biased thinking through inflammatory rhetoric.
As the tense summer continued, with unrest exacerbated by a global pandemic, the media urged Americans to embrace inclusiveness. Some commentators, including those in sports, were more outspoken in their condemnations of Trump.
Covid-19 scourged through sports, forcing widespread cancellations for some five months. By June, each of the four major sports leagues announced that it would launch major media campaigns to end racism. Once baseball, basketball, football and hockey were up and running, the all-out push promoting activism and progressivism blitzed from every form of media.
The ubiquitous campaigns were valued at hundreds of millions of dollars in media time. Leagues, teams, colleges and governing bodies turned over their overpowering media platforms to promote racial equality. You might argue that these undertakings were likely the election’s turning point.
Messages calling for Americans to stamp out racism flooded every form of sports media, from the legacy television networks to every digital platform imaginable.
If nothing more, the pervasive social justice campaigns reinforced Joe Biden’s stark criticism of Trump that he was dividing the nation. So as the election approached, the president not only took regular hits from CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post, he was now indirectly, but mightily so, pummeled by the sports media.
The NFL immediately launched a campaign to right admitted past mistakes, announcing programs for minority hiring and far-reaching media messaging to end racism. The league used its extensive means of visibility to promote unity and the Black Lives Matter movement. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who years earlier disparaged quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, admitted that he and the league were wrong.
In so doing, the NFL flooded the airwaves with messages about the importance of social justice. The league allowed phrasing like “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” to be painted above team names in the end zones. Players were also allowed to wear helmet decals featuring names of victims. Given that NFL games are among the highest rated in all of television, this messaging reached many, many millions.
In Santa Clara, a Black Lives Matter flag whipped through the air at Levi Stadium, home of the 49ers. Players and fans wore t-shirts appealing to the public for fairness on race. In Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium, a bright message appeared on the big scoreboard, reading, “We believe Black Lives Matter.”
Goodell maintained that kneeling during the anthem wasn’t an anti-American act, but an act of seeking social justice and reform. Goodell encouraged all to speak out and protest peacefully. After Goodell released this statement, Trump tweeted that Goodell was “intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL…thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag.”
At the MLB’s amateur draft, commissioner Rob Manfred announced that “this moment is a call to action, and baseball can do more as an institution.” It did. Working remotely at the time of Manfred’s announcement, executives representing all 30 teams raised signs on Zoom that read “Black Lives Matter. United For Change.” BLM was granted prominent visibility in MLB’s ballparks, from imprints on the pitching mounds to boldly lighted signage on outfield walls and on scoreboards.
The NHL, 97% of whose players are white, featured strong endorsements for racial progress. The league posted more inclusive “End racism,” signs, placing them prominently in NHL arenas. In contrast, the NBA, 74% of whose players are black, turned over almost all promotional slots at its disposal to social justice messaging. The playing surface at the Bubble where the league resumed its schedule was painted with bold lettering, and slogans of support for BLM and its related causes were spelled out on player’s uniforms.
One could view the campaigns by the professional leagues and their network partners as either thinly guised condemnation of a President who famously refused to endorse the message they were so blatantly advocating or as flat out indictments of Trump.
But not everyone appreciated the ubiquity of the social justice campaigns. Gary Abernathy, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about his experience turning on an NBA playoff game on television. “When players and others locked arms and knelt, I said aloud to no one in particular, ‘I’m done.’ I turned the station and did not tune back in.”
How these messages impacted the result of the election notwithstanding, they certainly coincided with a major drop in sports viewership. Perhaps viewers echoed Abernathy’s sentiment that the unending racial messaging detracted from watching sports in general and the NBA in particular. Still, the effect was clear. Ratings of the fall’s NBA playoffs were down 49% year over year. Apathy for that matter might have lingered. The NBA All-Star Game this month was the lowest on record and down 24% from a year ago. Even NFL regular season telecasts were down 7%, the smallest drop among the professional leagues.
More so than ever, athletes made political statements. Championship teams refused invitations to be honored at the White House and politics intermingled palpably with sports. And the sports media was in middle of it.
On August 26th, a month and a half before the election, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play the Orlando Magic in an NBA playoff game. The game wasn’t played until the league and member teams assented to the players’ demand that arenas be used as voting sites. Without the players holding the league hostage, it might not have happened.
Athletes harnessed their social media following too, to inspire younger voters to mail in their ballots or head for voting locations. Such messages were shared on Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.
Liberal commentators participated as well, and even challenged the leagues for not going far enough. Yahoo Sports’ Shalise Manza Young, who regularly covers the intersection of sports, politics, and race, did so in response to an NFL tweet.
When the league tweeted this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” (Manza) Young wrote: “Of all the quotes from all the sermons King gave, this is the one you chose, NFL? The audacity.”
ESPN’s top NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski used profanity in his attack of Josh Hawley after the Missouri senator took issue with the NBA giving players permission to wear BLM and other slogans on their uniforms. The comments earned Wojnarowski a slap on the wrist penalty from ESPN.
Perhaps fearing the cancel culture, conservative sports voices and columnists were hard to find. They had to be somewhere given the fact that Trump got more than 74 million votes.
Longtime New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick was one of the few. He wrote that Black Lives Matter is “a movement that has never cared about black lives unless their deaths can be exploited for chaos.” Mushnick, who has always spoken his mind added that the “police killing of George Floyd has served less as a cause than an excuse.” Clay Travis of Fox Sports Radio and Black columnist Jason Whitlock were two other of the very few who veered from the chorus.
Those who dissented from the BLM ethos faced harsher penalties than Wojnarowski. For example, Sacramento Kings announcer Grant Napear was let go after questioning why not ‘all lives matter.’ For voicing his opinion, he was fired.
The world had changed. When Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, award winning sports columnist Red Smith wrote: “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” Write that today and even the iconic Smith would be demonized. The cancel culture is turning into a frightening deterrent.
In 1996, when Republican Bob Dole ran for president against Bill Clinton, the popular announcer Jack Buck introduced him at a Missouri campaign rally. Son Joe Buck had told us, “I often wonder how all of his generation would handle this ‘cancel culture’ notion. I know this, he (dad Jack) wasn’t scared of too much.” The elder Buck and Dole had something major in common. They both earned Purple Hearts for gallantry during a military operation in the European theatre in the waning weeks of World War II.
Leagues, players, and voices in sports media advocated a message that, when read in the context of existing accusations against Trump, condemned the President. That messaging, together with a push for voter turnout, allowed the sports industry to play a pivotal role in Biden’s election.
Within the sports community, Trump didn’t stand a chance against the voices of the many athletes and the powerful media platforms that denounced his presidency.
In hindsight, the inextricable tie between sports and political advocacy was overpowering, more so than in any presidential election of the past. While 47% of the country voted for Trump, not many in sports spoke up on his behalf.