Time will tell whether golf-loving President-elect Joe Biden will come close to approaching the nearly 300 golf outings President Donald Trump enjoyed in his term.
But we do know that beginning Jan. 20, the volume on inflammatory and divisive sports rhetoric from the White House is likely to be turned way down, with the departure of a president who had a penchant for all-caps skirmishes with high-profile athletes and a knack for turning invitations to the White House into intensely scrutinized litmus tests of conscience and loyalty.
That change in tone over cultural politics will be accompanied by the potential for action on key issues like college sports reform and tax policy that could impact sports. The likelihood of Congress enacting such legislation on Biden’s watch rests greatly on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs next month.
Regardless of that outcome, the fuel that’s sparked recent unrest has not evaporated. That means many athletes will continue to not stick to sports exclusively and will seek to raise awareness. When they do, that inevitably will raise the ire of some.
Rather than stoke those flames like Trump, Biden can be counted on to try to lower them.
“What we saw in the four years of Trump was a politicization of sport like nothing since the 1960s and maybe ever,” said Michael Serazio, associate professor of communication at Boston College and author of “The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture.”
“First we saw the return of activist athletes; those came to the forefront on issues of racial justice and Black Lives Matter, but also on the flip side, there was the way in which President Trump and conservative media very much targeted sports, athletes, leagues as a useful political punching bag.
“I think the temperature will come down. Sports won’t be a political punching bag, and I think that in turn athletes will view [Biden] more favorably.”
Invitations to championship teams from Trump seldom failed to generate headlines, whether it was cheeseburger buffets for the Clemson football team, high-wattage no-shows from Alex Cora and Tom Brady or simply snubbing a team, which happened after the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship in 2018 and star player Steph Curry made it clear he wouldn’t attend if asked.
It’s no certainty, but an invitation from Biden probably won’t whip the sports/politics arena into a frenzy. And when examples of civil unrest over any number of issues surface in the sports world, Biden’s track record as vice president and presidential candidate offers a partial road map for what to expect, according to Betina Cutaia Wilkinson, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.
“It only takes one major incident for a video to go viral, for statements to be made, for protests to take place for pro athletes to voice their concerns and demand change, regardless of who is in the White House,” said Wilkinson.
“I would think [Biden] would be very much supportive of the BLM movement, condemning police brutality, condemning racism and white supremacy, so in that sense I don’t feel pro athletes would be lone wolves out there saying, ‘Hey, something’s got to change.’ ”
The only mention of sports on Biden’s official website is a tangential one.
“On his first day in office,” the section reads, “Biden will reinstate the Obama-Biden guidance revoked by the Trump-Pence Administration, which will restore transgender students’ access to sports, bathrooms, and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.”
One area where the Biden administration could create change is in college sports.
US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has been at the forefront of empowering and protecting student-athletes in large part because, he said, “The NCAA has made it abundantly clear their interest is in protecting the profits of the industry, not the rights or safety of the athletes.”
Murphy is one of the principal authors of a “College Athletes Bill of Rights,” a framework for legislation that would allow student-athletes to receive revenues from their schools’ use of their name, image, and likeness, as well as ensuring more health and educational opportunities. Among the bill of rights’ backers is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Murphy has not spoken with Biden on the subject, but said he is “certainly hopeful that this administration is going to lead on the issue of college athletics reform. We’re at a moment where the status quo can’t hold.”
Murphy is encouraged by general support “and pretty good cooperation” on the issue from Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), but allowed, “I’d be hard-pressed to see a path [for legislation] where [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell would spend a week or two debating the issue of college athletics.”
Even if the Democrats were to win control of the Senate by going 2 for 2 in Georgia, tackling NCAA reform will not crack the top-five list of pressing problems facing the country that could be addressed through legislation.
If the Democrats do take the Senate, Biden will push for tax reform that will likely have a slight ripple effect on sports, said Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Action Forum, a center-right think tank focused on economic, domestic, and fiscal policy.
“On the tax side, there’s not a tremendous amount of risk the incoming administration would pose to the taxation of sports franchises,” said Gray.
An increase in the corporate tax could mean a decrease in the ability of advertisers and sponsors to direct their dollars toward the many opportunities sports teams present in terms of arena and stadium signage, naming rights, and commercials. An elimination of the pass-through deduction, which allows owners of a business, like a team, to pay taxes rather than the business itself, will have a small degree of impact on franchises and their owners.
When it comes to the buying and selling of sport franchises, Gray said, “If you were looking to sell your team and afraid of paying higher prices on a sales tax like capital gains, you would want to get in on that in advance. But, if one were really driven by tax concerns, observers would definitely have time to see that coming.
“Underlying value [of franchises] would still presumably drive the transaction.”
The NBA’s kerfuffle with China two Octobers ago — when then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong supporters — was just one reminder of the massive audience in China that sports leagues and sports apparel companies are trying to reach. By lifting or easing tariffs imposed by Trump, Biden could create a more suitable climate for sports to expand their reach and revenues there.
“Biden has signaled that the fundamentals aren’t going to change much, but certainly the rhetoric will be relaxed, and that will allow for some progress on trade,” said Raymond Sauer, professor of economics at Clemson.
“Getting tariffs down and stopping the trade wars — I think that’s probably going to be the key thing Biden can easily do and put one on the board with easy wins while still keeping an eye out on the costs of free trade on American manufacturing workers.”
Biden can’t chalk up any wins or losses before Trump leaves the White House. After that, the play-calling from the Commander-in-Chief will sound and look brand-new.