Behind in the count, Trump seeks re-election boost in return of professional sports

But as he feuds with the leagues and sports stars, the risk remains that seasons could derail and his coronavirus messaging could take another hit.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump recognizes U.S. military personnel as the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros play in Game 5 of the World Series in Washington.
President Trump at a World Series game in Washington last October.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump, trailing in the polls and receiving increasingly low marks for his handling of the pandemic, needs a come-from-behind rally.

To launch it, Trump wants the American public to feel like life is returning to normal, and U.S. professional team sports' resuming play later this month could be key to bolstering that feeling, Republican strategists say.

But as sports are moving ahead, there is a looming risk that their seasons could be derailed again, a breakdown that would exacerbate public sentiment that the United States trails the world in recovering from the coronavirus.

And at a time when Trump needs sports, he has found himself increasingly at odds with the leagues and players, bashing NASCAR and the NFL for embracing racial justice messages and taking heat from sports stars who are experiencing first-hand troubles with coronavirus testing.

Trump continues to insist the pandemic is getting better and that the country is close to a return to normal — claims that run counter to spiking caseloads throughout a significant portion of the U.S.

For Trump, the best case scenario is that sports like baseball are able to move forward without further disruption, meaning the World Series would be completed before Election Day.

Should the restart of sports crash and burn, "that will be a visible national signal as to how the public health crisis is going,” Liam Donovan, a former Republican aide, told NBC News.

With presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden enjoying a significant lead in the polls over Trump both nationally and in key swing states, even a seamless reboot of sports may not be enough to save his faltering campaign.

"I don't know that having the World Series is enough for President Trump to feel good about the election, but to suspend the season (again) after bringing the players back would be a terrible omen," he said.

"A FUNCTIONING SOCIETY"

The reboot of sports has come with issues.

The NHL plans to play games within two "bubbles" — both in Canada — starting Aug. 1. But players participating in training camps in their home cities have tested positive for coronavirus while others are forced to quarantine because of potential exposure.

The NBA has convened in Florida — currently a COVID-19 hotspot — for a sequestered playoff tournament next month. One star player, Joel Embiid, arrived at the Orlando facilities in a full hazmat suit.

The NFL plans to begin the season in September as originally scheduled, but has already encountered problems as training camp nears. College football teams are hopeful to also play in the fall, but several have halted summer practice because of positive tests. And some high school and college athletic conferences have already suspended play this fall.

Baseball will be first to return, with a tentative start date of July 23. Though there are stringent protocols in place, teams will be traveling back and forth across a select number of cities.

A number of players have already tested positive or even opted out of playing. Some teams had temporarily shut down training camps because of testing issues.

"We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back," Washington Nationals Pitcher Sean Doolittle told reporters this month. "Sports are like the reward of a functioning society."

"STARVED FOR SOME ENTERTAINMENT"

Not only will sports offer Trump evidence of improving conditions, live events on television could offer a needed distraction. NASCAR raced in front of 20,000 fans in Tennessee on Wednesday night — likely the biggest crowd since the coronavirus brought public life to a standstill in March.

"It's extremely important not only for Trump's electoral prospects, but for the psyche of the nation that we as a country not backslide because of the pandemic," Matt Gorman, vice president at the GOP consulting firm Targeted Victory, said. "We're not going to be back to normal anytime soon, but people need to feel progress. Sports are a key part of that.”

Randy Levine, president of the New York Yankees, said he feels good about where baseball is at and while it's not perfect, efforts to return are going as well as they could. He doesn't ultimately think whether the return is successful will affect the political climate.

"This country is starved for some entertainment," Levine said, adding the sport sees itself as having a role in helping heal the nation.

A June Monmouth poll found that 58 percent of American adults miss watching live sports, including 59 percent of Republicans. A plurality of respondents to that survey said baseball was the sport they missed most.

"It would be extremely demoralizing for the entire country but especially for the president’s base," if the sports season was derailed again, former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said.

But Philippe Reines, a top adviser to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, said other factors — like the operating status of schools — will be more important in how the American public views the recovery.

"If not a single player gets sick and it's a great season and everyone's watching, but your kid's school is telling you that you're not open come fall, you're not going to be divided or conflicted about whether or not the situation is good or bad," Reines said.

"NASCAR CLAPS BACK"

Trump has pushed for sports to return for months, appearing acutely aware of what a successful return could mean for his political fortunes.

"Get the sports leagues back," he said in praising the return of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in May. "You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back."

Earlier this year, the White House formed an advisory council on sports and the pandemic. It convened once, Dallas Mavericks owner and council member Mark Cuban said, noting however that a liaison was available to him until recently.

"Like millions of sports fans across the nation, President Trump is eager to see the great athletes and teams back on the courts, courses, and fields of play," White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said, adding that the administration "has been working in partnership with leagues and teams on innovative best practices to keep players and fans safe and healthy."

But instead of signs of cooperation, Trump has been publicly feuding with sports leagues.

Trump criticized the NFL and NASCAR for supporting anti-racist efforts following George Floyd's death. He also pushed back on franchises, like the NFL's Washington team and MLB's Cleveland Indians, that have said they were considering a name-change.

The leagues don’t seem concerned about the attacks from the president, however.

"No one is afraid of him anymore," Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins said. "It’s one thing for the NFL to take on the President, but when NASCAR claps back, the writing is on the wall."

Those episodes played out in the background of changing attitudes toward race after Floyd's death and nationwide protests that followed.

"Trump's rhetoric may be appealing to part of his base, but it's a turnoff to many Americans," said Alex Conant, communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who added Trump may be wise to follow their lead.

Adapting his messaging on race is within the president's control. Whether the return of sports goes swimmingly is not.

"I think that would have a profound, psychological effect on the consumer and probably on the stock market too," GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, said if leagues are interrupted or shelved. "Because I think it would signal that we can't do large events, we can't do travel. This is going to be a longer haul than we thought."