JERSEY CITY, N.J. — After a weekend in which the President called for an NFL boycott, uninvited an NBA star to the White House, and suggested that national-anthem protestors be fired, the notion that athletes should—or even could—"stick to sports" seemed like it might be a relic of the past. But when asked to confront these thorny issues on a sun-splashed day preceding the 12th Presidents Cup, America's golf stars largely chose to punt.
It's interesting timing for an event that literally pits the U.S. against the rest of the world at a venue that gazes out at the Statue of Liberty, an enduring symbol of freedom and acceptance. President Trump is the honorary chairman of the matches, and his close ties to the game—coupled with his recent remarks about anthem protests—has made this a politically charged few days for sports.
During Tuesday's practice rounds, the U.S. team wore bright red-and-white striped shirts paired with navy blue pants and a dealer's choice of star-spangled footgear, but in regard to the protests the players spoke softly and cautiously, which was a statement in itself. When asked how his players would handle the anthem, U.S. captain Steve Stricker made it clear that Thursday's performance by Darius Rucker will be business as usual. "We were going to do what we always do," he said, "and that's take off our hat and put our hands across our chest and over our heart and respect the flag."
The NFL players' protests began as a call for awareness to the issues of systemic racial inequality and the mistreatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. It's easy to understand why these issues might not resonate as deeply with Tour stars, who are largely white, wealthy, and conservative. The U.S. Presidents Cup team is entirely white. One of its assistant captains is part black. But if history is any guide Tiger Woods is unlikely to comment in great detail on much of anything this week.
On Sunday night, journeyman Tour player Peter Malnati posted a thoughtful statement on Twitter supporting NFL players' right to engage in the protests. Champions tour player Paul Goydos provided further support, telling GOLF.com that while he'll not soon be kneeling himself, he respects the decision of those who do.
Davis Love III, another of Stricker's assistants, said, "I think you'll see in golf that there's a little bit more restraint. We adhere to our rulebook and to our core values and to our traditions, and I think that's why our sport is so successful. I think President Trump is right. There is a time for protest, and it probably isn't during the national anthem."
Pro golfers tend to be a patriotic bunch and are often outspoken in their support for law enforcement and the military. Most don't take representing their country lightly. Earlier this year, before his break-through win at the PGA, Justin Thomas was asked if he'd rather win a major or play on a winning Ryder Cup team. He didn't hesitate. "Winning Ryder Cup team, hands down," he said.
"It definitely is special," Thomas said Tuesday at Liberty National, grinning at the thought of representing the U.S. for the first time. "I think any time that you can play for your country, it's great."
It was a relatively quiet practice session, with just six foursomes spread across the property and New Yorkers still in the throes of their workweeks. But many fans who were in attendance donned the red, white, and blue in support of their side.
"Sure, you can take a picture," said Spencer Berry, 60, who had traveled in from Fargo, N.D. Berry wore a Team USA hockey jersey with matching bandana and posed with his oversized American flag littered with signatures from his decades as a golf fan. He added with a laugh, "Just don't ask me to kneel with it, 'cause I won't do it."
Phil Mickelson, who's rarely short on opinions, was asked about his reaction to the weekend's events, but he, too, was less-than-expansive. "There are social injustices that continue in this country and we should all strive to eliminate that," he said. "But this week, I'm so proud to represent the United States, to play for my country, to play for my teammates and participate in this great event."
A reporter tried a follow-up question to gauge Mickelson's thoughts on the NFL, but Mickelson interjected. "I don't know how else to add to it," he said. "I feel like I've answered that the best I can."
Rickie Fowler cautiously suggested that protestors choose a different outlet for their demonstrations. "It's a special time to, I guess, in a way pay respect and remember what a great country we get to live in, but it is free speech. You can do what you want. But I just think it may be better at a different time." He seemed keen to get back to a less provocative topic: Liberty National's stunning views of New York City.
"Especially being here with the backdrop of the city and the Statue of Liberty, it's pretty cool." Fowler said. "There's no better backdrop for an event like this."
There is another, less convenient backdrop in place this week, too, of course — the political kind, in which golf, and Lady Liberty, and the national anthem increasingly symbolize different things to different people, and in which athletes across several sports have unified and found their voices in a way that this country hasn't seen in decades.
As a warm, breezy afternoon at Liberty National turned to evening, two African-American security guards standing by a near-empty hospitality tent were asked how they'd like to see the players handle the controversy. "I think they can say whatever they want to say," one said, shrugging. "I don't think they will, to be honest. But I think it would be good if they did, y'know, just to hear them say they know what's going on."