When the President of the United States visits Saturday’s LSU-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, much like any time any president ventures out into the public arena, he’ll set off a seismic ripple. He’ll tie up traffic for hours. He’ll cost tens of thousands of fans extra hours in security lines. He’ll cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in security costs. He’ll generate millions of tweets, hundreds of thousands of words of commentary, dozens of thinkpieces like this one. All for one man to visit one game.
Why? What’s the point of all this?
You could say President Trump is looking for adoration in a friendly environment, and you wouldn’t be wrong. He’s on something of a sports tour these days, having traveled from Game 5 of the World Series to UFC 244 to, now, this year’s college football Game of the Century. He drew torrential boos in Washington but a more mixed reaction in New York, and the crowd in Tuscaloosa is likely to tilt even further in his favor.
But there’s more to it than simple ego. Trump’s obviously not the first president to venture out amongst the people at their sporting enclaves. There’s both tradition and strategy behind the move, one that carries relatively little risk and a significant upside … which makes it a bit of a mystery why Trump hasn’t tried this more often.
“Better late than never. I’ve been urging him to get out since his first year in office,” says Curt Smith, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and author of multiple books, including “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House.” “There’s political use to visiting sporting events. The average Joe and average Jane love sports. It’s been instilled in us since our youth. The more a president relates to that, the more we can relate to the president.”
“It’s also a way to get media attention without having to do something political or policy-oriented,” says Nicholas Sarantakes, a professor of history at the U.S. Naval War College and author of “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports.” “You’ll always alienate someone with politics or policy. There’s always a downside. But showing yourself as one of the people doesn’t have that downside.”
There’s no way around it — Saturday’s going to be a monumental cluster for anybody within 60 miles of Tuscaloosa. Stadium gates are opening three hours before kickoff, and security will be military-grade; sneaking in alcohol in sandwich baggies just got a lot more difficult. Students have been warned to toe the line or risk losing their prized tickets.
Getting to Bryant-Denny Stadium is tough enough on normal game days, crawling from I-20 up McFarland Boulevard and then through a nest of winding on-campus roads. The president’s motorcade is going to have a ripple effect that’ll radiate across half the state. (And that doesn’t even count time to pop over to Dreamland for some sweet tea, ’cue and white bread slices for dipping. If the president truly wants to connect with his base, he needs to ditch the KFC and get himself a pile of barbecue.)
Even so, Smith believes that the true risks for Trump are nonexistent. He’s unlikely to get booed; in 2016, Trump won Alabama by a nearly two-to-one margin, and Louisiana by a factor of nearly three-to-two.
“These are his people,” Smith says. “Football, stock-car racing … these are the things that are right down his alley. Your average [sports] fan is middle class and from middle America. Who does that sound like? It sounds like a Trump voter.”
“The downside is that people will say, ‘Your job is being president. There are more important things to do in running the country than going to a game,’ ” Sarantakes says. “You could look too frivolous. And you could get booed.” One need only glance at Trump’s Twitter feed to see how he reacts to even the perception of boos to know how well that goes over with him.
Odds are that Trump will bolt the premises without talking to local media. But if he does decide to take a couple questions from the sports media in attendance, Sarantakes sees another benefit for Trump.
“Sports reporters and broadcasters are very good at covering what they cover, and covering social issues that get into sports,” he says. “They’re not afraid of tackling big issues. But they might not know the details of, for example, wetlands policy or copyright law, and would stay away from those issues. Coverage for politicians [at sporting events] is fairly deferential, and it’s probably a bigger audience [than traditional news].”
Trump and Nixon: Parallel presidencies
Presidents have dipped in and out of the sports world for more than a century. William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out a first pitch. Ronald Reagan was the first president to make the White House visit a stop on every championship team’s tour. George W. Bush’s first-pitch strike at Yankee Stadium in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks lifted sports into the realm of inspirational patriotism.
But it’s Richard Nixon with whom Trump shares the most similarities, and not just because of their scandal-spattered administrations. Like Trump, Nixon was an avid sports fan, a rabid devotee of baseball and both pro and college football. Where Trump can comment knowledgeably on Tiger Woods and his challengers battling for the Masters, Nixon went deep on standings and rosters for his beloved Washington Senators and New York Giants.
Trump tried to break into the NFL on at least two occasions — once by legal force, when he detonated the entire USFL in a doomed courtroom challenge, and once by purchase, when he attempted to buy the Buffalo Bills. (NFL owners expressed sufficient concern about his financial stability that they rejected his bid.) Nixon wasn’t quite so grandiose in his sports ambitions, but he took his role as America’s No. 1 Sports Fan pretty seriously.
“Nixon fantasized more about sports than any president ever,” Smith says. “He wrote letters to athletes. He called plays for Don Shula in the Super Bowl. He invited the 1969 [MLB] All-Stars to the White House, and Hank Aaron said Nixon knew more about baseball than some of the people in the game.”
Nixon had his own problems with the NFL, but they were ones that any fan could understand. Back during his administration, the NFL didn’t broadcast certain playoff games, and didn’t broadcast any home games at all, regardless of whether it was a sellout. For his book on Nixon, Sarantakes listened to hundreds of hours’ worth of Oval Office tapes, and on them Nixon can be heard bellowing at his staff to get the NFL to change its policies.
“If we can get playoff games on TV,” Nixon said, per Sarantakes, “that will be the most important thing I do while in office.” (Bear in mind this was while the U.S. was still in Vietnam and negotiating with an ever-more-powerful China.)
Like Trump, Nixon relished the opportunity to get up close to athletes. Nixon would even pop into the Senators’ locker room after games — their manager, Ted Williams, was a big Nixon guy — and regularly kept box scores during games. While 250,000 demonstrators rallied agains the Vietnam War on the National Mall in 1969, Nixon sat in the White House two blocks away and watched Ohio State beat Purdue. Also like Trump, Nixon disdained newspapers, and his staff would deliver him only the sports pages.
Such was the breadth and obsessiveness of Nixon’s sports knowledge that when a reporter asked him in 1972 — an election year — how he would rank the best baseball players of all time, Nixon took an entire week to devise his list. White House records show he spent one full day and parts of many others working on the list, and produced two separate lists — prewar and postwar, divided between the American and National Leagues.
The result? Almost uniformly positive media coverage. Sports Illustrated, the dominant sports publication of the day, declined to cover what it deemed a gimmick, but Nixon’s list drew front-page coverage on some major newspapers and front-sports-page coverage on virtually all others.
“You can’t buy that kind of positive coverage,” Sarantakes says, and it makes one wonder a bit why Trump hasn’t pursued a similar move. Prior presidents have filled out NCAA brackets, for instance; the downside for Trump would, again, be minimal. (Even if he went chalk for his picks and took Duke to win it all, he’d still gain a share of uncritical press.)
Game of the Century of last century
Nixon spent a lot more time at games than Trump has to date, often leading to the humorous scene of Secret Service agents trying to corral the president, keeping him from escaping into the crowd or eating hot dogs sent over by adoring fans. While Trump isn’t likely to attempt either of those moves on Saturday, you can still draw a direct line from Trump’s LSU-Alabama visit right back to another Game of the Century held 50 years earlier.
On Dec. 6, 1969, No. 1 Texas traveled to Fayetteville to play No. 2 Arkansas, a contest so huge that it drew a 52.1 share — meaning half the televisions in the country that were on that afternoon were tuned to the game. Texas-Arkansas was one of the most important games of the decade, and Nixon wanted to be there.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Sarantakes says. “White House staff went to Arkansas well before the game and found a whole lot of people saying, ‘We ain’t giving you our tickets.’ The [White House] press corps followed, but they had to stand on the sideline in the rain while the sportswriters were in the press box.”
Security issues in smaller venues like Fayetteville were an ever-changing ordeal, not in the least because of overzealous local law enforcement. “The local police would often overreact anytime anyone got near the president,” Sarantakes says, “and the Secret Service would have to say, ‘No, it’s OK, we can tell who is and isn’t a threat.’ ”
Nixon upped the game’s prestige by announcing that he would give a plaque to the winner proclaiming it the national champion, a peculiar move given that New Year’s Day bowls were a month away and Penn State was also undefeated. That set off political firestorms in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Texas, but Nixon was more concerned with reveling in the moment than worrying about any future electoral implications.
Termed “Dixie’s Last Stand” — it was the final major American game of any sport played between all-white teams — the game ended with Texas coming from behind to win 15-14. Nixon got what he wanted, a turn in the sports spotlight, and Texas went on to win the Cotton Bowl, validating Nixon’s plaque. (Penn State fans claim to this day they had the better team, but weren’t able to play for the title.)
Nixon’s visits to ballparks ended in his second term — “everyone was overwhelmed with trying not to get indicted, and managing the lie,” Sarantakes says — but he could still count on sports to get him an easy cheer or two. Just weeks before resigning, he drew roars from crowds in Atlanta and Stillwater, Oklahoma, by praising the Falcons and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, respectively.
“Using sports, for Nixon, worked out,” Sarantakes says, “almost until the very end.”
So why hasn’t Trump tried to cater to sports fans until now? While he was a reality-show host and real-estate maven, Trump threw out first pitches in Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, surely one of the few people to have that combined honor. But to date, he’s the first president since Teddy Roosevelt not to throw out the first pitch to start a baseball season, and prior to this run, you could count the number of events he’s visited on one hand — mostly Army-Navy games and the 2018 football national championship.
“He has to have not done so because he’s afraid of being booed,” says Smith, who adds that the president, in Smith’s words, needs to “man up.”
“Every president gets booed,” Smith says. “He would gain far more than he would lose, showing the strength and courage people expect from their president.”
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