Trump could do with some help from a major sports star these days, writes Kieran Shannon
Photo credit: Rory McIlroy with US president Donald Trump, former New York Yankees baseball player Paul O’Neill (on right) and Clear Sports CEO Garry Singer (on left) at the Trump International last weekend. McIlroy has allowed himself to be exploited and politicised, believes Kieran Shannon. Picture: ClearSports Twitter
Last autumn, back in those now almost dreamlike Sorkinian days when an articulate, stately person occupied the West Wing and Donald Trump’s presidency was merely a remote possibility instead of a frightening reality, the then Republican candidate characteristically revised his position on a previous statement.
Throughout Barack Obama’s administration, Trump had been publicly critical of the then president’s occasional fondness for a round of golf. Earlier in his campaign Trump had promised that if elected, he wouldn’t have time for such a triviality because he would be too busy working for the American people. It was quite the statement and sacrifice, considering the man’s genuine passion for the sport.
On the eve of the election though, he conceded he would be prepared to make the odd exception, again for the good of the American people, of course. At a rally in New Hampshire he promised he “would always play [golf] with leaders of countries and people who can help us”.
Last weekend, for the sixth time since assuming the American presidency, Trump visited one of his golf courses in Florida, in some contrast to Obama who did not play his first round as president until the last weekend of April.
And as we now know, Trump didn’t just visit his course in West Palm Beach last Sunday, he played it, with one Rory McIlroy.
As McIlroy will openly profess, he is not the leader of any country; as his Twitter profile states, he just hits a little white ball around a field sometimes. But by choosing to hit that little white ball around Trump’s field the other day, he fell into that other category which Trump is prepared to drag himself to the tee box for — one of those “people who can help us”.
Trump could do with some help from a major sports star these days, because within the top stratosphere of American sport he has become something of an isolated, even ridiculed, figure.
Take, for instance, what Stephen Curry had to say about him the other week. In many ways Curry is to the NBA what McIlroy is to golf — the boy from next door with the game from another planet. He’s not just outrageously skilful; like McIlroy, he is hugely likeable, bright, grounded, the kind of figure corporate and middle America and the world at large has been utterly charmed by.
Curry is the face of Under Armour whose CEO Kevin Plank described a pro-business president such as Trump as “an asset to the country”. Curry would respond that he agreed with the description — “if you remove the ‘et’ from ‘asset’”. When asked about how his position did not align with that of his CEO, Curry made it clear he wasn’t going to change his views for the sake of expediency. “If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there is no platform, I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am.”
The most prominent athlete in all of America is similarly principled and demonstrative in his objections to his new commander-in-chief. LeBron James actively campaigned for Hilary Clinton in Ohio. Since Trump’s election, he has chosen not to stay at any hotel owned by Trump. He’s publicly opposed the attempted immigration ban, saying it “does not represent what the United States is all about”.
With the NBA finals almost certain to be a Curry-James, Warriors-Cavaliers faceoff for a third straight year, it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely the Larry O’Brien trophy will be visiting the White House later this year.
The Vince Lombardi trophy will, but already six members of the New England Patriots have made it known they will not be attending the reception. “With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices,” defensive back Devin McCourty, has said, “I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.” Even Tom Brady, who had endorsed Trump during his campaign, has not committed to accepting the invite as America realises Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has extended beyond the campaign and into the presidency itself.
In such a climate, Trump was understandably delighted to have someone of McIlroy’s stature accompanying him in hitting “a little white ball” around his field.
McIlroy first came up with that line about “a little white ball” in 2011, sometime between his collapse at that year’s Masters and his inspiring resurrection at the US Open. It was on a humanitarian visit to Haiti which was struggling in the wake of a earthquake; how could something like Augusta be considered a ‘calamity’ when he’d witnessed such devastation?
Clearly in his work as a UNICEF ambassador, McIlroy has a social conscience, while he’s also exhibited an impressive independence of thought in his insistence not to have his identity aligned with one nationality or flag ahead of another. In accepting Trump’s invite to play a round of golf the other day though, he allowed himself to be used, exploited, politicised.
McIlroy happened to play his round with Trump the same day that a very interesting interview with Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry appeared in the Sunday Independent. Speaking in the comforts of Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, Lowry confessed to having next to no interest in politics. Harrington revealed that he has a huge interest in such matters but no desire to publicly profess his views. Again, he drew on the line about hitting a little white golf ball; what right did that give him to stand on a big soapbox?
“I don’t have to use it and I don’t believe I should,” he’d say. “There are professors and educated people qualified to do that. They should be given the soapbox, not me. But the problem is the sportsperson will be listened to.”
In America though they’ve recently come to realise that it’s not necessarily a problem if the sportsperson is listened to, especially when that sportsperson goes to the effort to inform and educate himself on the issues. In fact, athletes like James have come to the realisation that is their duty to speak out for social justice and political consciousness.
In a striking moment in recent American sports history, James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony appeared together on the stage at last year’s ESPY Awards and declared that they were re-embracing the tradition Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and others established in the 1960s.
“No more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore,” Carmelo Anthony would tweet to fellow athletes after five police officers were shot dead in Dallas. “We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. THE TIME IS NOW. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE.” And that was before Trump won the presidency and started banning immigrants.
Not so long ago, McIlroy’s action last weekend could have been dismissed as an inoffensive act, and Harrington’s contention that sport and politics shouldn’t mix could have sounded a logical one.
They play golf, a sport that was always happy to play Sun City. (“There’s no doubt we have played in countries where there are human rights issues,” Harrington would admit to Paul Kimmage, “and I’ve definitely wrestled with it at times, and legitimised it in my own head — maybe for selfish reasons.”). They come from Ireland, a place where there’s hardly been a tradition of political agitation from its top sportspeople.
But right now they live and play a lot in America. And it is an America that has changed with the role of the sportsperson having changed in it as well. The likes of James and Curry are demanding that black lives matter, so when you’re willing to then appear all buddies on the golf course with someone who genuinely frightens them, that matters too.
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