If the last few years were like a book, the American public would turn the last page of this chapter and remark, “Wow, that escalated quickly.”
Donald Trump will leave the White House on Wednesday morning. What follows will be the inauguration of a new administration, the cleaning of the residence, and the continued absolution of a nation.
For the sports world, things will never be the same.
Athletes and sports pundits were quite used to public admonishment when they dared steer off course and into the realm of “not sticking to sports.” Well, the last four years didn’t leave them any choice but to voice their thoughts on a nation in disarray.
Trump’s policies and unrelenting tweets specifically embraced sports as part and parcel of his platform, using what was unfolding on the field to lionize his policies and marginalize those who ran counter to them.
Let’s go back to August 2016. It seems like another version of our world, somewhere stuck in a multiverse. Crowds packed into stadiums, fans sitting inches from one another rather than respecting the safety of six feet. And on the field, Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem, a show of peaceful protest. It was a way to silently and profoundly call attention to ongoing strife and social injustice.
He was rebuked, villainized, and eventually ostracized from the sport. He was also used by the man who would become president, propped up as something antithetical to his version of what America should be, fanning the flames of animosity.
"I have followed it and I think it's personally not a good thing. I think it's a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it's not gonna happen," Trump said at the time of Kaepernick’s protest.
Trump’s verbal dalliances into the realm of sports are numerous. He’s criticized LeBron James and NBA players. Conflated NFL ratings with the league’s protests. And time and again found fault with players taking time to raise awareness for social justice.
Never a fan of criticism, he lambasted those athletes who declined invitations to the White House. He even tweeted out a take-backsie of a White House invite to the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry in 2017. And he criticized Megan Rapinoe who vowed to never visit after a World Cup victory.
In 2019, Trump insisted that the USWNT star “should never disrespect our country, the White House or our flag.”
But if sports were a vehicle for his politics, athletes weren’t about to acquiesce. Instead, they used their platforms to turn voice into action.
LeBron sat with CNN in 2018 and addressed what he saw as divisive rhetoric from the president. “What I’ve noticed over the past few months,” James said in July of that year, “(Is) he’s kinda used sports to kinda divide us, and that’s something that I can’t relate to.”
The new normal comes bearing Black Lives Matter shirts and profound moments of reflection. It’s an era that has already seen a WNBA team stand up for itself and speak out against an owner whose opinions were antithetical to their very being.
While this outgoing administration was sowing seeds of doubt in the legitimacy of the vote, athletes such as Lebron James, Trae Young, and Skylar Diggins-Smith were creating platforms such as More Than a Vote, dedicated to “combating systemic, racist voter suppression.”
WNBA players such as Chiney Ogwumike were on the ground, helping voters make their voices heard at the polls.
The Atlanta Dream took the Black Lives Matter anthem and amplified it in the wake of the team’s owner Kelly Loeffler admonishing the movement.
“If she wants to play this political game, we thought, we can, too,” the Dream’s Elizabeth Williams said in December, just ahead of a Georgia special election that eventually saw Loeffler lose her senate seat to Raphael Warnock. “We’re college graduates. We’re not dumb here. We can strategize and learn from people. We can learn a little about politics.”
On Tuesday, Warnock, along with Democrat Jon Ossoff, saw their victories earlier this month certified by Georgia officials. They may be sworn in as senators as early as Wednesday.
It coincides with a new administration moving in as another flies south for the rest of a very long winter.
And for athletes, they are done kneeling. They are now marching. They are through being silent in their protests because they are addressing the issues and doing so with passion and fortitude.
This isn’t to say that things have changed completely. If anything, the last four years have proved we are far from a post-racial paradise.
What it has shown is that we need a diversity of voices now more than ever. Athletes who have for years been told to stick to sports and stay out of politics discovered that politics came knocking on their door. Thankfully, they answered.