BY PERSONAL CARRYING, Joe Biden has a 36-year Senate career and two terms as Vice President. He has viewed athletes and athletic competitions as sources of virtue, elevation, and common ground. He attributes the confidence to the sport to overcome his stuttering and at times instill a sense of healing in his own family.
As the nation’s 46th President, Biden’s sentimental view of athletics and his promise to steer the nation away from political divisions should enable him to restore the tense relationship between the White House and much of the sports world.
“He’s sure to look into sports and sports figures to bring us back in line as Americans,” Francis Biden, the younger brother of the president-elect, told ESPN. Joe Biden sees sport as “one of the central things that holds us together as Americans,” said Francis.
But the deep rifts in the nation that existed before President Donald Trump used sport to anger his political base for four years will test those aspirations.
Trump brought a mixed reality into the presidency regarding sports: the avid golfer was routinely followed by athletes, regularly attended sporting events, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 14 athletes, including Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player that month. But under Trump, the champions’ ceremonial visits to the White House turned from a national honor to a political litmus test. The teams continued to compete, but some athletes, including Stephen Curry, guardian of the Golden State Warriors, and Megan Rapinoe, soccer star, declared their refusal to leave. After the January 6 attack on the Capitol, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a longtime friend of Trump, turned down the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In sometimes vulgar terms, Trump urged sports team owners to punish athletes who followed the example of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. He has argued with athletes on Twitter and falsely accused Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only full-time black driver, of joking after a noose was found in his garage on Talladega Superspeedway.
Biden’s transition officers did not respond to ESPN’s requests for comment. But the younger Biden told ESPN that the president-elect sees protests against social justice by athletes very differently. “There is nothing he admires more,” said Francis Biden of his brother. “That sums it up. That brings skin into the game. Risk your career. These guys are heroes.”
Trump’s broadsides sparked a massive setback, with stars pinning their immense popularity behind political and social justice movements and using their social media platforms to blow up the resident of the nation’s highest office. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, perhaps the nation’s most prominent athlete, once went on Twitter to refer to the president as a “bum”.
At the same time, athletes who supported Trump were slandered by Trump critics. These included Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who wore a Make America Great Again red cap during his team’s 2019 White House visit, and boxer Deontay Wilder, who visited Trump’s White House to seek the posthumous pardon of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, including Viking legend Alan Page, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees and Tiger Woods, have been convicted in some areas for accepting Trump’s honor.
Over the years, Trump has been an avid sports fan. He played baseball in high school, owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, and played boxing matches at his Atlantic City casinos. As President, he has participated in several college football games, at least one UFC fight, and served as Grand Marshal of the 2020 Daytona 500, where he received a warm welcome. But when Trump was spotted at Game 5 of the 2019 World Series in Washington, large parts of the crowd sang “Lock him up”.
Even before Biden’s inauguration, there are signs of a thawing of the presidency’s relationship with sport, at least among those who criticize Trump.
Golden State Warriors strikers Draymond Green and James celebrated on Twitter after Biden’s win. “@KingJames You can go to the White House and celebrate your Title G!” Green tweeted at James. James replied, “YO we’re back in there, my G !!! I’ll have my tequila and vino too!”
Curry, WNBA stars Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne and Lakers icon Magic Johnson also shared celebratory posts on social media. And the Nationals have invited Biden to throw the ceremonial first place of their 2021 season. Trump became the first president not to knock out an MLB pitch since William Howard Taft began the tradition at a Washington Senators game in 1910.
“There have always been times when individual athletes and coaches have refused to go to the White House, but overall I think as long as Biden doesn’t use his presidency to communicate divisions, that tradition will be restored,” said Joseph N. Cooper , Professor of sports leadership at UMass Boston and author of an upcoming book tracing the long history of black sports activism.
Growing up, required saw sport as a refuge, a place where he could have fun, develop, excel and earn the respect of his colleagues. He was short for his age before sprouting to 6 feet by the end of high school, but he made up for his size with quickness and moxie. On the soccer field, he was known for his fast-paced runs and long touchdown catches.
“He had good speed and was kind of an all-round athlete,” recalls Michael Fay, a Biden soccer teammate at Archmere Academy, a Catholic school outside of Wilmington, Delaware.
His classmates at Archmere called him “Dash”, not as a reference to his vanity in the field, but because of his stuttering.
“They called me Dash because there was nothing I could do in the classroom,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir book, Promises to Keep. “I spoke like Morse Code. Dot-dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dash-dash “You gu-gu-gu-gu-boys, sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up! “
The stutter had been a source of embarrassment for as long as he could remember. But when his hesitant speech shamed him during the vortex of childhood and early adolescence, he could always rely on his athletic prowess to lift him up.
“Exercise was as natural to me as speaking unnaturally,” wrote Biden. “And sport turned out to be my ticket to acceptance – and more. I wasn’t easily intimidated in a game. Even when I stuttered, I was always the boy who said, ‘Give me the ball.'”
When the football team entered Biden’s senior year in 1960, they set a 1-6 record, another in a string of season losses. There were only 19 players on the roster at the start of the year and the new coach went through lunch to fill out his roster. “He was just looking for guys big enough to survive football,” said Fay.
Despite a pieced roster and low expectations, Archmere moved on to a storybook season, and Biden was a big part of it. The team went 8-0 and won their conference title. Biden scored 10 touchdowns, many of them on long receptions.
“I threw 20 touchdown passes to Joe during our high school career,” said Bill Peterman, Biden’s high school quarterback, who later played at Coast Guard Academy. He added with a laugh, “Joe caught 19 of them.”
Biden says the winning culture stayed with him. As Vice President, he spoke at the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame in 2012 about the introduction of his former coach E. John Walsh. “He challenged us to play the game the way you lived your life, with passion and integrity,” said Biden. “No matter how good you were, Coach always emphasized that you are a team-mate first.”
After high school, Biden went to the University of Delaware, where he hoped to play soccer and maybe even turn a pro. But that dream only lasted a semester on the freshman team as he was forced to quit to focus on his weak grades.
“When my first semester grades came out, my parents told me I wouldn’t play spring football,” Biden wrote in his book. At a 2018 memorial service for the legendary Delaware soccer coach, Tubby Raymond, who led the Blue Hens after Biden’s graduation, he shared the lessons he had learned from soccer.
“I remember the first time I was a freshman on the practice field and was an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “And it didn’t take long before I realized that much more was expected of me and all those who went to this practice field that day than our athletic abilities.
“We are expected to be gentlemen. We are expected to behave the same way on and off the field.”
During a campaign sweep through Pittsburgh with Steelers hero Franco Harris just before the election, Biden recalled that the sport could bring joy to his two young sons even amid the devastation. In 1972, Steeler’s owner Art Rooney asked Harris and colleague Rocky Bleier to visit Biden’s two preschool sons, Beau and Hunter, who were hospitalized after the terrible car accident that killed Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and young daughter, Amy.
After that, “they had a smile on their face and each of them held a soccer ball that was signed by the entire steel curtain,” Biden recalled.
In the US Senate, Biden supported federal legislation banning performance-enhancing drugs, which he viewed as a form of fraud that undermined the athletic ideal.
“If kids think the best athletes are ‘on the juice’, what does that teach them?” Biden said in a statement to the media in 2004 after the federal law banning steroids was expanded. “I think it teaches them that they should use steroids or steroid precursors to get ahead and win the game. Cheating is fine. That insults me to the core. The United States is the ultimate meritocracy, and it’s totally un-American to to take them. ” a performance enhancing drug to gain an unfair competitive advantage. “
Over the years, Biden has been a strong supporter of Philadelphia’s professional teams, and he’s been on the field in Minneapolis to help the Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl LII victory. He was also a supporter of the teams at his alma mater, where he shows up regularly to take part in games.
As vice president, he was in the stands cheering the women’s basketball team in Delaware when they defeated North Carolina in the 2013 NCAA tournament. He then went to the locker room to congratulate the team. The following year, he had the Delaware men’s basketball team visit the White House and dine at the vice president’s residence after winning the 2014 Colonial Athletic Association tournament. During his final weeks as vice president, Biden called the Delaware field hockey team to Washington to celebrate its 2016 national championship.
“He was so excited when we won the national field hockey championship,” said Chrissi Rawak, Delaware sports director. “He immediately reached out and said he would like to speak to our coach. Then he invited us to his home in DC to celebrate the performance.” Biden phoned the field hockey coach Rolf van de Kerkhof. “It was amazing that he took the time to give me five or seven minutes of his time,” said the coach. “He’s talked about us and his grandchildren who play sports. He’s certainly a sports fanatic. He attributes his growth as a person to sports.”
CONTINUE AS President Biden has pledged to scrap the Department of Education rules developed during the Trump administration that give more rights to students accused of sexual assault on campus. The rules also limit how schools can judge these allegations. Some advocates welcomed the recent changes to Title IX provisions, saying they would allow men accused of bodily harm to defend themselves against bogus charges. However, many women’s rights groups and others say the changes have made survivors more reluctant to report abuses. The problem is especially important at major colleges, where ESPN has found athletes to be charged with sexual misconduct three times as likely as other students.
“A step backwards in Title IX is unacceptable,” it says on the Biden platform.
On a personal level, 78-year-old Biden said his own participation in sports these days is limited to regular exercise to stay healthy and be a fan. He enjoys playing golf, occasionally rides his bike, and his brother claims he can still put his weight on the bench. Most mornings, he said, he works out on his peloton exercise bike or treadmill, then lifts before starting work.
Despite his lifelong association with the benefits and virtues of athletics, some analysts warn Biden will have no easy task maneuvering sport back onto politically neutral turf. They worry that the country is simply too polarized for that.
“The sports world has been able to take that middle course for most of this country’s history, supposedly being apolitical, but also supporting the president and having this healing power at the same time,” said Frank Andre Guridy, professor at Columbia University Studied sports history and social movements.
“I believe many of these beliefs are now being fundamentally challenged. I don’t see how Biden can regain this without significantly changing our political culture.”