What will MLB, the NBA, and NFL do if something more serious happens to Trump?

October 5, 2020

Members of the Trump Administration and cabinet gather in close proximity to each other in the Rose Garden at the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to tell just how sick President Trump is right now. On the one hand, he’s out and about in a car waving at supporters outside Walter Reed, and on the other he’s receiving experimental COVID-19 treatments that generally are used only on those severely affected by the virus. Furthermore, this administration — from the top down — lies so often and so brazenly that it’s hard to accept the veracity of any official statement, let alone one that purports to address the president’s health while he’s infected with a virus that has ravaged the country on his watch.

All that’s to say we don’t know what’s happening with him. He could be resting comfortably, and he could be deathly ill. So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about what MLB, the NBA, and NFL would do if Trump takes a turn for the worse.

Famously, after President Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 1963, the NFL played its games as scheduled that Sunday. Meanwhile, the American Football League postponed its games that weekend, the NBA postponed games that were to be played the day of the assassination and continued as scheduled over the weekend, and the NHL also played as scheduled that weekend.

Major League Baseball wasn’t in season when Kennedy died, but it was in season when President Harding died of a heart attack in August 1923. Games scheduled for August 3 were postponed, as were games scheduled for August 10 (see p. 10), the day of Harding’s funeral.

I couldn’t find any instances of games stopping for the nation to mourn someone who wasn’t the president. For instance, when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968, MLB games continued as scheduled, even in Los Angeles, where he was killed.

What about a sitting president suffering a major health emergency? President Wilson’s severe health problems were a tightly-kept secret, but when President Eisenhower had a heart attack, it was immediately reported by the press and major pro sports carried on.

The thing about all these precedents, however, is that while previous eras featured their share of enmity, the American political scene right now is more polarized than ever and Trump, himself, fully embraces division as his preferred state of things. Certainly, some people had their reasons to be happy when President Kennedy died, but, anecdotally at least, there was widespread sadness and despair in reaction to the president’s assassination.

Just considering the reaction to President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, perhaps there would be 800,000 people lining the streets for his funeral procession should he succumb to complications from the virus, but there would also be a significant number of protesters. It wouldn’t be surprising if a few prominent people publicly celebrate his death, or offer up a “good riddance,” and those statements definitely would get copied and bandied about right-wing circles as proof of the other side’s depravity.

In light of all that, if Trump were to die from COVID-19, I’m not completely sure MLB would stop the playoffs. For sure, they’d fly flags at half-mast and on the first day of games afterward they’d conduct a moment of silence, but even though MLB has the kind of institutional culture that normally would lead it to insist upon postponing games to facilitate national mourning, in this case I can see them trying to strike a balance between showing appropriate “respect for the office” while simultaneously carrying on as if it’s just another bit of upheaval on the outside.

Ultimately, if Trump were to die on the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, something tells me MLB would do whatever the Fox network wanted to do. If Fox preferred to run wall-to-wall news coverage, MLB would not settle for games airing on FS1.

As for the NBA, its season is almost over, but if Trump died in the midst of the Finals, the league wouldn’t postpone the games unless players (LeBron?) determined the moment provided a uniquely prominent platform from which to send a message. They’d likely hold a moment of silence before the next game, but there’s almost no way the NBA would go further than that unless the players came up with something.

And as for the NFL, I get the feeling games would be postponed only if Trump died on a Saturday or on a Sunday morning. Just like MLB and the NBA, the NFL is deeply intent on playing games and getting through its schedule. However, though the NFL’s fan base may be roughly the same, politically, as MLB’s (both appear more conservative than the NBA’s), the NFL’s weekly schedule means it probably only has to cancel games when shock has yet to wear off. Part of the NFL’s ethos is that its leaders conceive of the league as a cultural juggernaut that forms the culture rather than reacts to it. In that framework, it only makes sense that the NFL would play the Sunday after the president died on a Tuesday.

If the president died on Tuesday morning, would television networks still be doing special coverage on Sunday afternoon? From the NFL’s perspective, why shouldn’t they be on television shaping the national conversation? Even before that, can’t you imagine Joe Buck introducing Thursday Night Football with, “It’s been a tumultuous few days for the nation, let alone these two teams, but we heard a lot this week from players, coaches, and other staff about how focusing on football has been a refuge for them, and we hope we can provide you with a few hours of entertainment tonight. Standing beside me is my partner Troy Aikman...”?

Now, don’t get me started on the reactions of people who actively espouse “stick to sports”...

(Photo: "President Trump Nominates Judge Amy Coney Barrett for Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court" by Shealah Craighead. Public domain.)