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Friday, January 31, 2020

January 31, 2020: Sports and Politics: The Nationals at the White House

[If it’s Super Bowl week, it’s time for another SportsStudying series! This time on the fraught and contested, and not the slightest bit new, intersections between sports and politics. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the week’s posts or any related issues!]
On two different ways to think about a surprising and frustrating moment.
I’m not sure any sequence of events better expressed the yin/yang quality of hope and despair in late 2019 America than did a two-part moment involving the Washington Nationals. On Wednesday October 30th the Nationals won an epic Game 7 over the Houston Astros to clinch their first World Series title (and the first championship for a Washington baseball team in more than 70 years), bringing a great deal of joy to all us sports aficionados who had become fans of this likeable underdog team throughout their consistently nail-biting postseason run. And less than week later, on Monday November 4th, many of those Nationals attended a White House ceremony in their honor where some players expressed (to this fan at least) surprisingly enthusiastic support for the most divisive and unpopular president in American history. (To be fair, a number of Nats did not attend the ceremony, including closer Sean Doolittle who articulated his reasons for staying away in an eloquent and inspiring set of comments that exemplified his and his wife’s consistent commitment to social justice.)
Ironically, the most aggressively pro-Trump message came from one of my favorite Nats, Ryan Zimmerman (a favorite both because he attended the University of Virginia and thus had been a favorite of my parents for many years, and because he was literally the first National and was able to contribute to this World Series title 14 years later). Zimmerman said to Trump, “We’d also like to thank you for keeping everyone here safe in our country, and continuing to make America the greatest country to live in the world,” and to be honest I don’t think there’s any way to analyze Zimmerman’s “everyone” and “our country” that doesn’t focus on a white supremacist, exclusionary vision of America and Americans. I’m not suggesting that Zimmerman is an overt white supremacist (I have no idea whether he is or not), but those phrases—particularly suggesting that the president who has lost thousands of immigrant children, inspired hate crimes and mass shootings, called for the jailing and execution of political adversaries, etc. has kept “everyone here safe”—unquestionably depend upon a sense that only certain Americans are truly part of “our country.” It was beyond frustrating to hear a favorite National use such phrases to praise such a president.
The other most surprising and striking moment, when Nationals journeyman catcher Kurt Suzuki donned a MAGA hat and was embraced by Trump, might seem even more frustrating still. Suzuki, who was born in Hawaii to parents of Japanese American heritage, would seem to be one of the players who could most understand the destructive effects of Trump’s (and Zimmerman’s) exclusionary rhetoric. But Suzuki downplayed the moment’s political or divisive sides, repeating at the time, “I love you all” and then adding in an interview afterward that he was “just trying to have some fun.” I think it’s possible to take him at his word, to see an athlete caught up in the continued aftermath of the pinnacle of sporting achievement (on the team level, anyway) and just enjoying the crazy ride (made even crazier, I’m sure, by the fact that it came in his 13th Major League season). As I hope my weeklong series has illustrated, sports and politics have always been interconnected and will certainly remain so—but that doesn’t mean that every sporting moment is also a political one, or that we can’t still seek and find the joys of sports on their own terms. The story of the Nationals, like so many contemporary stories, features all these contradictory but consistently present layers.
January Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other sports and politics intersections you’d highlight?

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