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From Tom Brady and the NFL to the WNBA and NASCAR, Trump still haunts pro sports

In one way or another, every major American sport was touched by Trump. What they do next will determine the lasting impact of his presidential meddling.
Image: Tom Brady Donald Trump
Tom Brady chats with Donald Trump during a boxing match in Atlantic City, N.J., on June 25, 2005.Donna Connor / WireImage - Getty Images file

On Sunday, Tom Brady faces off against Aaron Rodgers in the 2021 NFC championship game. The world’s best quarterback (arguably) and low-key supporter of former President Donald Trump lives in Florida now and reportedly bought land in the same exclusive Miami community as Ivanka Trump. Earlier this month, Brady’s old coach Bill Belichick turned down Trump’s Presidential Medal of Freedom offer. Trump may no longer reside on Pennsylvania Avenue, but his specter still haunts the professional sports world.

Trump has long enjoyed support in the sports world — particularly in the ownership suites and on the golf greens. Yet there is no question that, on the whole, he will not be missed.

Indeed, Trump has long enjoyed support in the sports world — particularly in the ownership suites and on the golf greens. Yet there is no question that, on the whole, he will not be greatly missed. Trump changed and destabilized sports just like he changed and destabilized pretty much everything else, and there is an undeniable eagerness among leagues, executives and most players to get back to normal business with a normal president. Though it might not always be that easy.

Trump has always been involved in various sports industries, from his golf courses to the old, failed United States Football League and his membership in the WWE Hall of Fame. But with his move to the White House, everything in sports came to revolve around Trump, from NFL players kneeling to championship teams refusing to meet with him to his Twitter war with Bubba Wallace and NASCAR. The United States women’s national soccer team became American heroes as much for their open defiance of Trump as they did for their dominant performance in the World Cup.

Brady and Belichick, probably the greatest quarterback-coach duo in NFL history, will forever be MAGA-branded, whether they deserved to be or not. Trump was everywhere in sports over his four years in office. He sure made certain of that.

In one way or another, every major American sport was touched by Trump. What they do next will determine the lasting impact of this presidential meddling.

MLB: There hasn’t been any scientific data on this, but it seems fair to assume that of all the major North American team sports, Major League Baseball has the most players who are Trump supporters. (Some support quietly, like Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, and some less so, like would-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling. There was plenty of support in the owner’s box too.) Commissioner Rob Manfred met with Trump at Trump Tower when he was still president-elect, and he benefited from Trump’s controversial Save America’s Pastime Act.

But as Trump’s fortunes began to wane, the league began to back away from him — they were also angry because of Trump’s Cuba policy — and the MLB's embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer caused Trump to ignore it altogether. (Later, the league also suspended all political donations to candidates or any party.)

NFL: The NFL was constantly roiled by Trump, who relentlessly blasted attempts by players like Colin Kaepernick to call out police brutality. In 2017, he said owners should pull the “sons of b------”off the field if they kneeled, called the game boring and encouraged his supporters to boycott the league entirely. The president’s attention became so overwhelming that the league had a secret meeting with players and owners to figure out how to deal with it, and him.

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As Trump faded over the summer, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said “Black lives matter” — without ever reckoning with the league’s blackballing of Kaepernick, of course — and the 2020-2021 season was mostly able to steer clear of politics, which was Goodell’s dream all along. Still, players and advocates will not soon forget the league’s handling of Kapernick or its however-brief capitulation to Trump.

NBA: Political activism has been growing in the NBA for years — remember when LeBron James called Trump “U bum” on Twitter? — but it exploded in 2020 as the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the election led to an unprecedented crescendo of social justice advocacy. The Milwaukee Bucks actually skipped a playoff game because of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and James’ organization More Than a Vote became so powerful that its promotion of NBA arenas as early voting sites may have helped swing the election in cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit. (And considering high Fulton County turnout, it may have been decisive in the Georgia runoffs as well.)

The NBA’s political activism feels like a movement rather than a fad, and players like James have vowed that they are just getting started. There is no question Trump was a driving force behind this push.

WNBA: Perhaps no league has led the political discourse like the WNBA did during Trump’s presidency, from Maya Moore’s incredible sabbatical to free Jonathan Irons and fight for prison reform to the league dedicating its season to Breonna Taylor to the Atlanta Dream actively endorsing the Rev. Raphael Warnock over Sen. Kelly Loeffler — the team’s owner. The WNBA has only become more powerful and influential as a result — the league enjoyed increased ratings this year — and there is little reason it will slow with Trump leaving office.

NASCAR: It’s crazy, but true: For multiple months last year, the hottest selling NASCAR gear was Bubba Wallace’s with “Black lives matter” on it. Wallace, the lone top-tier Black NASCAR driver, was at the center of Trump’s harrowing Confederate flag debacle last summer, and it led to the odd spectacle of NASCAR being to the left of the president of the United States.

NASCAR will likely pivot back somewhat now that Joe Biden is president, but the ban on Confederate flags is here to stay. (Whether this leads to a modernizing of the sport’s fan base remains to be seen — and to be fair, their cars have been turning that way for years.)

College football: Even when he was being booed everywhere else, Trump always had a friendly face in college football. Trump grew to become a college football staple, mostly because of his political base in the South, though he also claimed to have personally "brought back Big Ten football." (He didn’t, and it didn’t help him win in the Rust Belt anyway.)

But Trump’s brand of politics, and in particular his willingness to ignore the pandemic, was mirrored by the administrators and commissioners this coronavirus season, which was a mess start to finish and may end up aging incredibly poorly. Even so, Trump still has his base here: You may never see Trump at another New York Yankees game, but a Clemson game? That sounds more likely.

The world of sports is still muddling through the pandemic, but it is dreaming of a normal, regular, boring year in the not-so-distant future. With Trump gone, it may actually get one — for a while anyway. Like with the rest of the world, he’ll linger for years to come, whether anybody wants him to or not.