By Andrew McGregor
Donald Trump is attending tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Atlanta. Hosted by Georgia native Nick Ayers, the chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, the president will witness a championship game that features two Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams from the heart of Trump’s America, allowing him to connect with his base in a safe space. Trump is not the first president to use sports to connect with his loyal supporters, nor is he the first to attend a major college football bowl game.
Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon attended bowl games just prior to their inaugurations. The events foreshadowed how both presidents would interact with and rely on sports during their time in office. As Jesse Berrett has shown, Nixon played a pivotal rule in turning professional football into a political weapon. Similarly, Kennedy expanded and formalized the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness as a central Cold War program, relying on University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson to serve as its director.
Kennedy watched the 1961 Orange Bowl a week after outlining his concerns about the fitness of everyday Americans in a Sports Illustrated article entitled “The Soft American.” Biting his fingernails during tense moments, the president-elect focused intently on the game. According to the Florida Senator George Smathers and his wife, who hosted Kennedy at the game, he compared a long Navy pass to his own touch football exploits. At other moments, he and Grant Stockdale, a former University of Miami player and member of the party seated near Kennedy, exchanged hastily diagramed plays. Unconcerned about partisanship, he cheered enthusiastically when Heisman winner Joe Bellino scored a touchdown for Navy late in the game and groaned in disappointment as the University of Missouri prevailed 21-14. The warm afternoon in the Miami sun was one of the country’s first looks at the glamorous spectator-in-chief.
Building on his visit to the Orange Bowl, Kennedy continued his push for a physically fit nation. In February, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare organized a daylong conference on fitness to support the president’s goals. Harkening back to Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy explained to the attendees, “We don’t want a nation of spectators. We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life.” A month later, he named Wilkinson director of his President’s Council for Physical Fitness. Cooperating with the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER), Wilkinson built a centralized program that connected Kennedy’s enthusiasm for sports and fitness to a national network of physical educators. He debuted his new curriculum to each state’s director off health, physical education, and recreation at a special two-day conference in July and by September had distributed over 75,000 copies of the President’s Council’s fitness program to school officials across the country.
Kennedy extolled the success of the program and the progress Wilkinson had made during his speech at the National Football Foundation in December 1961. He cited Muskogee, Oklahoma as an example of a place that has produced seven All-American football players but where 47% of its students cannot pass minimum physical fitness tests. After six-weeks of training, the president explained, the Muskogee showed a 24% improvement rate.
Although he did not attend a bowl game in January 1962, he remained focused on sports and physical fitness. In July, Kennedy and Wilkinson took to the pages of Sports Illustrated once again to provide an update on their fitness program and justify its need. The president often cited the Greeks in his articles and speeches, explaining that they understood the central importance of physical fitness in happiness and state power. He framed physical fitness as a quality of life issues not just a Cold War requirement.
Kennedy returned the Orange Bowl in December 1962. This time it was not to watch football or talk about physical fitness, but to welcome back Brigade 2506 after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Just two months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Attorney General Robert Kennedy helped the president negotiate the release of the brigade’s surviving members, who had been imprisoned by Fidel Castro for over 20 months. In his welcome back speech, Kennedy accepted their battle flag and promised to return it in a free Havana.
Three days later the president returned to the stadium to watch the University of Oklahoma take on the University of Alabama. He visited Wilkinson and visited the Sooners in the locker room before the game, joking, “I thought I’d drop by to see who was physically fit.” Moments later, he invited the captains of both teams to his box for the pregame coin toss and wished them luck. Despite his friendship with Wilkinson, he tried to remain neutral during the game. He spent equal time shaking hands with cheerleaders from each school and was not seen demonstrably cheering for either school.
Kennedy sat with Florida Governor C. Farris Bryant and met with Oklahoma Governor J. Howard Edmonson at halftime. Edmonson likely shared the news of the sudden death of Senator Robert S. Kerr with the president. It was a devastating loss both on the gridiron and in the Senate for Oklahoma. The Joe Namath-led Crimson Tide shut out the Sooners 17-0. Kerr, a longtime Oklahoma booster and friend of Wilkinson and the president, had become an outsized figure in the Senate. Indeed, Kennedy once confided to Edmonson that Kerr “has more control of my legislative program than any other person in Congress.”
The Orange Bowl, which was in relatively close proximity to Kennedy’s “vacation White House” in Palm Beach, served a variety of purposes for the president. It helped him connect with fans; reinforced his commitment to sports and physical fitness; provided him a chance to network with other politicians; and served as a place to deliver important speeches on non-sporting topics. Each visit was connected to larger ideas and pressing issues.
Like Kennedy, Nixon attended the Rose Bowl prior to his inauguration in January 1969, where he watched his friend Woody Hayes’ Ohio State University Buckeyes take on the O.J. Simpson-led University of Southern California Trojans. California Governor Ronald Reagan and Bud Wilkinson joined him. No longer coaching and through with electoral politics after his loss in a 1964 Senate campaign to replace Kerr, Wilkinson had become one of Nixon’s favorite companions. He served as a “Special Consultant to the President” and lent his hand to the Republican Party by hosting telethons and doing youth outreach during the 1968 campaign. Nixon was rumored to be considering him to serve at GOP chairman before enlisting him as a consultant.
Nixon’s use of Wilkinson and his interest in not only college football but also its leading coaches is part of what historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has described as an “embrace of showbiz politics” or perhaps in this case “Pigskin Politics.” Just as Jesse Berrett has shown with professional football, Nixon used college football to connect with his base and link his brand of law and order politics with sports icons. This was particularly evident in his relationships with Hayes, who he eulogized in 1987.
Beyond these friendships, however, Nixon, like Kennedy, was a football fan. Neither president achieved much success as a player. Kennedy described himself as a junior varsity player at Harvard, while Nixon frequently praised Wallace Newman, his Whittier College coach, as he recounted stories of how bench warming and losing prepared him to overcome his many political obstacles. As President, Nixon relished his locker room visits and passing off trick plays to coaches.
While the 1969 Rose Bowl kicked off Nixon’s sporting presidency, it was quickly overshadowed by his decision to personally award the University of Texas the national championship after they defeated the University of Arkansas in a thrilling 15-14 upset on December 6, 1969. His decision to award the trophy after the game upset some fans. Penn State coach Joe Paterno felt particularly slighted because his team was also undefeated and owned the nation’s longest winning streak. In future years Nixon opted to visit or call teams after the season, establishing a tradition that subsequent presidents have followed. He flew to the University of Nebraska to congratulate their national champion teams following the 1970 and 1971 seasons. During each trip, he surprised the press with his intimate knowledge about the Nebraska team and its players.
Nixon’s engagement with college football and championship teams faded after his first term. This may be in part because Wilkinson left the administration in 1971, though historian John Sayle Watterson suggests that it was because “his enthusiasm for spectator sports…was gradually crowded out of the news.” Still, Nixon’s engagement with college football during these years highlights the political moment that saw the sport take a conservative turn.
In retrospect the image of Nixon and Reagan at the 1969 Rose Bowl foreshadows ways in which college football has been martialed to signpost cultural values and differentiate loyal, hard-working, and disciplined students from the disruptive and politically active New Left. Coming on the heels of Reagan dispatching California Highway Patrol officers to break up a student rally turned protest at the University of California, Berkeley and a handful of other campus demonstrations throughout the country, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” was released in September 1969 and contrasted football players from Oklahoma with hippies in San Francisco. Although it made no mention of Reagan’s “Bloody Thursday” at Berkeley, the song’s imagery insinuated that football players respected authority too much to spark violence away from the gridiron. It highlighted what some coaches, politicians, and fans believed – “Athletics are the last stronghold of discipline on the campus” – and suggested that Oklahomans and other Midwestern and Southern Americans had little in common with coastal radicals. Nixon embraced the song and used it to further align college football with his brand of law and order politics that appealed to the common man within the Silent Majority. Along with Hayes, Reagan and Wilkinson, he seized on the sport to help him build a new conservative movement in America.
As Trump attends the national championship game tonight many Americans are unsure of what we will see. He seems to understand that college football is generally a conservative space that will shield him from embarrassment and is popular with his base. He has also shown a preference for college over professional sports. Perhaps it is because he admires its authoritarian structure where successful CEO coaches, like Alabama’s Nick Saban, are frequently lavished with praise while being permitted to control the narratives surrounding their teams. Yet, unlike either Kennedy or Nixon he does not have close relationships with coaches in the game or a personal connection to its location. In fact, last January he described Representative John Lewis’ district, where Mercedes-Benz Stadium is located, as “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)” in a series of tweets.
Because Trump has largely failed to have positive interactions with the sporting world and instead often resorts to dog whistles when talking about athletes, it is unclear if he can display the same authentic enthusiasm for the game as Kennedy and Nixon. While Trump has his own sporting bona fides, including frequent golf outings, owning a team in the short-lived USFL, and participating in professional wrestling, he has appeared aloof and out-of-touch with ordinary Americans in his public appearances. The president has also spoken out against protesting athletes, criticized an ESPN anchor, and suggested that three UCLA basketball players arrested in China should be grateful for his benevolence in helping them avoid serious punishment. To put it mildly, he has had a rocky relationship with the sporting world during his first year in office.
Given these challenges, it is worth asking what role, if any, he will play in the pre- and post-game ceremonies. Will Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, or ESPN, who is broadcasting the game, want the President to appear on the field or in the telecast? Kennedy shook hands with cheerleaders and welcomed players to his box for the coin toss in 1963. Nixon visited the locker room to give a national championship plaque to Texas in 1969. Yet, they both faced logistical and security challenges. The Secret Service escorted Kennedy out of the 1961 Orange Bowl two minutes before it ended and Nixon had to navigate protestors at the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game. Similar obstacles exist for Trump. How might he interact with players, fans, or coaches at the game? Will he tweet? Can he avoid further alienating the sports world with his off-the-cuff remarks? And what effects with his presence have on the already gridlocked Atlanta traffic? We’ll have to wait and see.
Trump is not setting precedent by attending the College Football National Championship game, but his lack of a deep-seated interest in the sport or related policy objective to push separate him from other presidents. Kennedy used the Orange Bowl to promote his fitness agenda and meet with political allies. Nixon cheered on his friends while watching a sport he loved that also happened to help make him relatable. Neither of those apply to Trump. Instead, his trip is likely little more than an overt gesture by an unpopular president to pander to his base. He is hoping to harness the political culture established by Nixon to score what he hopes are easy political points. In doing so he has added another storyline to tonight’s game and provided fodder for the ongoing conversation about the intersection of sports and politics. There will likely be much more to say and analyze tomorrow after the game. Perhaps then we’ll know if college football is still a safe space for conservatives or, if like the NFL, the sport has lost its bearings.
Andrew McGregor is a Limited-Term Lecturer in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder and coeditor of this blog. He is currently working on a book tentatively entitled, “From Steinbeck to Haggard: How College Football Redefined “Okies” and Transformed Oklahoma.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @admcgregor85.