The lines between politics and sports have been blurry as long as those two primary human pastimes have existed, but President Donald Trump’s disinviting of the Philadelphia Eagles and Argentina’s canceling of a soccer game in Jerusalem provide fresh evidence that we need some separation.
The tradition of White House visits for championship sports teams is believed to go back to the 1924 Washington Senators and President Calvin Coolidge, but it wasn’t until the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XIV in 1980 that a president, Jimmy Carter, welcomed the Super Bowl champions.
The White House visit for college and professional champions never has meant anything — neither presidential fandom for the team nor player support for the president. It’s just a photo opportunity, a chance for the president to associate himself with winners, regardless of whether he knows the players or their sport, and for the players to get their Forrest Gump moment, no matter whom they voted for.
Any president bringing in athletes is doing so to score political points, and some athletes understandably choose not to be used in that way. Republican and Democratic presidents have seen the likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady skip the White House ceremony; usually, any uproar comes and goes quickly.
Trump’s harping on the NFL’s national anthem controversy has ratcheted up the athletic politics, leading more players and even entire teams to reject his invitation. Facing an embarrassingly low turnout from the Eagles on Tuesday, June 5, the president rescinded the invitation and instead held a patriotic rally.
No one looked good as a result — not Trump, who appeared to flub the words to “G-d Bless America,” and not those Eagles players who couldn’t put respect for the office of the president and the chance to visit the White House above their dislike for the man.
The same day that the White House held its non-Eagles rally, Argentina’s national soccer team canceled a friendly World Cup tune-up planned for Saturday, June 9, in Jerusalem. It was the politics-sports overlap taken to an international level, and, like everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was the focus of dueling narratives.
Palestinian activists and their supporters had pressured Argentina’s players to cancel the game, including displaying bloody jerseys outside the team’s practice facility in Spain. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement declared victory. Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev accused the game’s opponents of terror tactics.
Regev was blamed for moving the game from Israel’s premier stadium in Haifa to Jerusalem, ramping up the politics so soon after the U.S. Embassy opened in that city and after Israel faced misplaced international condemnation regarding the deadly violence on the Gaza border. Palestinians were blamed for politicizing a game, albeit one whose scheduling from the start had more to do with making a diplomatic and political statement than preparing Lionel Messi and teammates for Russia.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government should stay out of sports scheduling and thus give Israel’s sports federations a stronger basis to argue that soccer games and other competitions are and ought to be apolitical — just as Trump and his successors should drop the spectacle of White House visits for sports champions.
We get more than enough politics in our lives. Sports should be an escape.