fb-pixel Skip to main content

President Donald J. Trump, a lifelong devotee of sports and a charter member of the “stick to sports” camp, is exiting office with sports sticking it to him.

As Trump departs and Joe Biden takes over, a president who excelled in the art of weaponizing sports is staggering from a jarring succession of blows from his beloved world of sports last week.

As president, Trump repeatedly injected himself into the coverage of sports with the same knack he had for finding the bold-faced type in the New York tabloids as a real estate dealmaker and reality TV star.

White House invitations to teams turned into litmus tests of loyalty, sometimes sparking fierce pushback from athletes unwilling to be used as political props for a Trump brand wallowing in racist memes and policies. Trump bellowed repeatedly — in interviews, on Twitter, or from the South Lawn — against activist athletes.


Since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, Trump has been on defense, a task made even tougher now that Twitter has suspended his account.

His “that’s gotta hurt” week began the night of Sunday, Jan. 10, when the PGA of America terminated its agreement to hold the 2022 PGA Championship at his Trump Bedminster golf resort in New Jersey. The next day, the British Open organizing group announced it had no plans to hold its event at his course in Turnberry, Scotland.

On Tuesday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is revered by Trump and supported his 2016 presidential campaign, declined Trump’s offer to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the wake of the riot at the Capitol.

On Wednesday, Trump was informed by the City of New York that it will terminate contracts with four Trump Organization recreational properties: a carousel and two skating rinks in Central Park, and the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx.


The first cut was the deepest.

Maggie Haberman, the New York Times reporter who is considered by many to have the keenest read on Trump’s psyche, tweeted Monday that a person close to the White House described Trump as “gutted” by the PGA move.

“He’s angry about impeachment, people who have spoken to him say,” wrote Haberman. “But the reaction to the PGA decision was different order of magnitude.”

Vanity Fair quoted a golf industry executive who knows Trump well and has played golf with him often as saying, “Losing the PGA tournament and any chance for an Open at Turnberry had to be a dagger to Donald’s heart. Hosting the PGA was the pinnacle for his golf ego. Anyone who knows him knows he’s far more emotionally invested in golf than politics.”

Some invites declined

Trump continued the tradition of extending invitations to championship sports teams to the White House, and some visits created amusing headlines, such as the one two years ago when he paid out of pocket for a buffet of fast-food cheeseburgers, hamburgers, and french fries for the Clemson football team.

Other team visits took place — or simply did not materialize — against a backdrop of athletes and coaches of color boycotting in protest of what they saw as Trump’s racist and inflammatory utterances, opinions, and policies.

After back-to-back NBA championships, the Golden State Warriors did not visit in 2017 and 2018. Before the first no-show, Trump tweeted, “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”


NBA superstar LeBron James responded in his own tweet:

“U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”

The 2018 champion Red Sox were honored by President Trump, though not all of the team members accepted the invitation.
The 2018 champion Red Sox were honored by President Trump, though not all of the team members accepted the invitation.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

The Philadelphia Eagles did not clamor to make the trip to the White House in the summer of 2018 after they defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Trump turned their tepid response into another Twitter jab: “The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!”

The Red Sox’ May 2019 visit to the White House to celebrate their 2018 championship revealed a divide that ran mostly along racial lines. Players of color — including Mookie Betts, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts — skipped the ceremony. So did manager Alex Cora, who was underwhelmed by Trump’s relief efforts in Cora’s native Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

The ceremony went ahead, with the White House heralding the visit of the “Boston Red Socks” as the “World Cup Series Champions.”

The visit also was notable in some quarters for Trump telling the team during a tour of Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom that Lincoln lost the Civil War.


Frequent golfer

A round of golf was Trump’s chosen exercise, hardly unique among presidents, but he faced charges of hypocrisy considering that his criticism of predecessor Barack Obama often focused on Obama playing golf too often and at too leisurely a pace during his eight years in office.

While the White House usually declined to say if and when Trump included a round of golf when he made his nearly 300 visits to golf resorts (most of them his own), surreptitious telephoto shots of the president in khakis, white polo shirt, and red “MAGA” hat became familiar sights.

Sportswriter Rick Reilly used to golf with Trump and wrote the book “Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.” Reilly cites examples of caddies calling Trump “Pele” for his habit of kicking his shots out of the rough, Trump exaggerating his handicap, and Trump claiming gimmes on chip shots — all no-nos in a sport that prides itself on honor.

Golf is a passion for Trump, but it’s hardly his only one in sports.

In the mid 1980s, during the brief existence of the United States Football League, Trump became the owner of the New Jersey Generals. While the Generals were a good team under Trump, his oversight was driven by self-interest that revolved around his desire to become the owner of an NFL team, according to author Jeff Pearlman in “Football for a Buck,” a history of the USFL (1983-85).


Rejected by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle on the ownership front, Trump led an unsuccessful attempt to have the spring-league USFL compete directly with the NFL by moving to a fall schedule. That led to the league’s demise.

As president, Trump delighted in recognizing sports stars living and dead with the same Presidential Medal of Freedom that Belichick turned down.

Of the 24 medals he awarded, 14 went to athletes, an eclectic list that included Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Babe Ruth, Alan Page, Jerry West, Gary Player, Tiger Woods, Roger Penske, and Celtics legend Bob Cousy.

Celtics legend Bob Cousy accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump in August 2019.
Celtics legend Bob Cousy accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump in August 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

When it came to pardons, Trump issued two with sports connections: one for Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, and another to former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.

Despite his love for baseball, Trump only attended one game as president: Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at the Nationals ballpark in Washington, D.C. He was booed.

Backlash and rifts

Baseball was spared most of the racially tinted venom Trump reserved for the NFL, NBA, and even Nike for perceived un-American, anti-flag, anti-patriotic stances.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” said Trump in a 2017 speech.

A year later, after Nike unveiled an ad campaign featuring quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who led the movement to protest social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem and was blacklisted as a result, Trump took to his keyboard: “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”

From September 2018 to the middle of January 2021, Nike’s stock price has risen 71 percent, with company revenues rising nearly every quarter, from $9.4 billion to last quarter’s record $11.2 billion.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May sparked not only nationwide protests and a growth in multiracial support for Black Lives Matter, but also pushback at Trump from the sports world — from both players and leagues — that never let up for the rest of his term.

President Trump applauded a Salute to the Military during Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park in Washington.
President Trump applauded a Salute to the Military during Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park in Washington.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

After New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees last summer walked back comments critical of fellow players who kneel and said that he now understood their actions, Trump was aghast, telling his son, Donald Trump Jr., in an interview that Brees “hurt himself badly.”

In a radio interview in August, Trump said he hadn’t caught wind of criticism he was getting from NBA players but that “I wouldn’t be surprised. There are some very, very, very nasty, frankly very dumb [players].”

About to leave an office that allowed him to brandish a sports bullhorn the last four years, Trump leaves behind an indelible record that frayed his ties to the sports world.

The rift may be beyond repair.

Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.