Sports·Opinion

Sports worship winners, but Donald Trump is recent history's sorest loser

As CBC Sports Senior Contributor Morgan Campbell writes, it's not surprising that prominent sports figures are seeking distance from the outgoing president, not just because he incited an insurrection, but because of how he has behaved since Biden's clear victory.

Prominent, once-allied sports figures now seeking distance from outgoing president

United States President Donald Trump joins West Point cadets during the Army-Navy football game in December 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

If you wanted early clues to how Donald Trump's presidency would unfold, you needed only examine his record as a sports industry mogul.

You could, for example, single out Trump's bad-faith invocation of the war clause in a contract to host the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight title fight at one of his struggling Atlantic City hotels in 1991. The clause allowed parties to void parts of the deal if war broke out on U.S. soil, but Trump refused to pay promoters the agreed-upon site fee when U.S. troops launched Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait.

That act of chicanery allowed the future president to slither out of a deal he thought would lose money, cost promoters $2.5 million US in revenue, and foreshadowed 2019, when Trump declared a specious national emergency hoping to force funding for his still-under-construction border wall.

Trump wasn't a complete failure as a sports executive. As owner of the USFL's New Jersey Generals, he ordered the team's coaches — until then reluctant to overuse Herschel Walker — to feed the superstar running back all the carries he could handle. Walker responded by shattering records, rushing for 2,411 yards in 1985.

Of course, sports business success involves solving problems more complex than whether to give the ball to a once-in-a-generation talent like Walker. Trump's long-term plan, expertly chronicled in Jeff Pearlman's Football for A Buck, was to steer the USFL into head-to-head competition with the NFL, then force the NFL to absorb the Generals into the league and Trump into its exclusive club of owners.

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Except Trump drove the fledgling league straight into a ditch. It folded after three seasons, but won an antitrust suit against the NFL — the judge awarded the USFL a single dollar in damages.

Those details didn't foretell exactly how Trump's one-term presidency would end — with an angry mob of his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol building in a spasm of treasonous violence that would lead to five deaths and more than 100 arrests. But Trump's record as a sports executive did signal a willingness to double-cross partners and create intractable scandals, then leave others behind to clean up his messes.

Trump is bad for business

Trump loyalists like Alabama senator and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville still appear eager to follow the lame-duck president wherever he leads them, but the broader sports world seems, finally, to have figured out Trump is bad for business.

On Sunday, the PGA announced it would no longer hold its 2022 championship at Trump National golf course in New Jersey. Then golf's worldwide governing body confirmed that the British Open would not return to Turnberry, a Trump-owned club in Scotland. And on Monday, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick declined to join Trump at the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As president, Trump has used sports as a platform for his performative patriotism — witness his call for NFL teams to cut "sons of b----es" who kneel during pre-game anthems. And he has used sports to launder his image — witness his posthumous pardoning of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 2018, and subsequent photo-op with prominent Black boxers like Deontay Wilder and Lennox Lewis.

But after a gang of far-right marauders ransacked the Capitol and slayed a cop in Trump's name, leagues are cutting ties and Trump is discovering he can no longer Stick to Sports.

"It has become clear that conducting the PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand," said PGA of America President Jim Bridgerton in a video statement. "It was a decision made to ensure that PGA of America and the PGA Professionals can continue to lead and grow our great game."

That severed relationship might cut Trump as deeply as being dumped by Twitter did. According to TrumpGolfCount.com, the outgoing president has spent 298 days playing golf since taking office, costing taxpayers roughly $144 million.

The sport is so important to him that in early 2018 he dispatched then-ambassador to the U.K Woody Johnson, a former owner of the NFL's New York Jets, to lobby the British government to send the British Open to Turnberry.

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Britain's government turned Johnson down as quickly as Belichick did this week. And the knowledge that he couldn't lure an NFL coach to Washington for another photo-op, even when offering the nation's highest civilian honour, must also sting. To the extent that Trump can muster loyalty to entities besides himself, he's a New England Patriots fan. Team owner Robert Kraft even gifted him a ring the last time New England won the Super Bowl.

But Belichick, correctly, deduced that accepting a medal from Trump a week after the president's supporters overran senate chambers would help normalize deeply troubling acts.

"I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honour represents and admiration for prior recipients," Belichick said in a statement. "Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation's values, freedom and democracy."

Trump still has sport-connected allies working to overturn president-elect Joe Biden's election victory. Inside the Capitol, Tuberville and Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, wrestling coach at Ohio State during that program's sex abuse scandal, are on the record opposing the certification of November's election results. And the violent gang breaking into the building included Klete Keller, a gold-medal winning swimmer who skulked through the Capitol rotunda in his Team USA jacket.

But it's not surprising that prominent sports figures are seeking distance from the outgoing president, not just because he incited an insurrection, but because of how he has behaved since Biden's clear victory.

Imagine Ohio State football coach Ryan Day dialling up College Football Playoff officials after his team's 52-24 loss to Alabama in the championship game, then begging him to find him 29 points so he can declare his team the winner and collect a six-figure championship bonus. Sounds ridiculous, but it's no different from Trump on a recent phone call, pleading with Georgia's secretary of state to overturn that state's federal election results.

Or picture Day persuading committee members not to hand the championship trophy to Alabama coach Nick Saban, while spurring armed Buckeye fans to a violent revolt against the very idea of settling championships on the field. Better just to name Ohio State champions in perpetuity.

All of those tactics are par for a Trumpworld course, but will also doom many of his other sports relationships.

The sports world worships winners, and Trump is recent history's sorest loser.

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About the Author

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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