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In Joe Biden's White House, sports and politics may retreat to their own corners

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Joe Biden's connection to sports (1:18)

Jeremy Schaap examines Joe Biden's relationship with sports and how the president-elect plans to reset the White House's relationship with them. (1:18)

THROUGH PERSONAL TRAGEDY, a 36-year Senate career and two terms as vice president, Joe Biden has viewed athletes and athletic competition as sources of virtue, uplift and common ground. He credits sports with instilling the confidence to overcome his stutter and, at times, delivering his own family a sense of healing.

As the nation's 46th president, Biden's sentimental view of athletics and his promise to steer the nation away from political division should put him in a position to repair the strained relationship between the White House and much of the sports world.

"He's certainly going to look to sports and sports figures to help bring us back into alignment as Americans," Francis Biden, the president-elect's younger brother, told ESPN. Joe Biden views sports as "one of the central things that binds us together as Americans," Francis said.

But the nation's deep divides, which existed even before President Donald Trump spent four years using sports to rile his political base, will test those aspirations.

Trump brought to the presidency a divergent reality regarding sports: The avid golfer was routinely joined on the course by athletes, he attended sporting events regularly, and he awarded 14 athletes the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player this month. But under Trump, champions' ceremonial White House visits were transformed from a national honor to a political litmus test. Teams continued to attend, but some athletes, including Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, declared their refusal to go. In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a longtime friend of Trump's, declined the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In sometimes vulgar terms, Trump called on sports team owners to punish athletes who followed former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's lead to protest social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. He feuded with athletes on Twitter, and falsely accused Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver, of perpetrating a hoax after a noose was found in his garage at Talladega Superspeedway.

Biden transition officials did not respond to ESPN's requests for comment. But the younger Biden told ESPN the president-elect holds a totally different view of social justice protests by athletes. "There is nothing he admires more," Francis Biden said of his brother. "That's putting it on the line. That's getting skin in the game. Risking your career. Those guys are heroes."

Trump's broadsides triggered fierce pushback, with stars throwing their immense popularity behind political and social justice movements and using their social media platforms to blast the occupant of the nation's highest office. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, perhaps the nation's most prominent athlete, once took to Twitter to call the president a "bum."

At the same time, athletes who showed support for Trump found themselves vilified by Trump critics. They included Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who donned a red Make America Great Again cap during his team's 2019 White House visit, and boxer Deontay Wilder, who visited the Trump White House to witness the posthumous pardoning of the first Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, including Vikings legend Alan Page, Yankees stalwart Mariano Rivera and golfer Tiger Woods, were condemned in some quarters for accepting the honor from Trump.

Through the years, Trump, has been an ardent sports fan. He played baseball in high school, owned the USFL's New Jersey Generals and hosted boxing matches at his Atlantic City casinos. As president, he has attended several college football games, at least one UFC fight, and served as grand marshal of the 2020 Daytona 500, where he was warmly received. But when Trump was spotted at Game 5 of the 2019 World Series in Washington, large sections of the crowd chanted "Lock him up."

Now, even before Biden's inauguration, there are signs of thawing in the presidency's relationship with sports, at least among those critical of Trump.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green and James celebrated on Twitter after Biden's victory. "@KingJames y'all can go to the White House and celebrate y'all title G!" Green tweeted at James. James responded: "YO we back up in there my G!!! I'm taking 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 out the ceremonial first pitch of their 2021 season. Trump was the first president not to throw out an MLB first pitch since William Howard Taft started the tradition at a Washington Senators game in 1910.

"There have always been times where individual athletes and coaches have declined to go to the White House, but I think overall as long as Biden doesn't use his presidency to communicate divisiveness, that tradition will be restored," said Joseph N. Cooper, a UMass Boston professor of sport leadership and author of a soon-to-be-released book tracing the long history of Black sports activism.

GROWING UP, BIDEN saw sports as a refuge, a space where he could have fun, develop, excel and earn the respect of his peers. He was short for his age before sprouting to 6 feet by the end of high school, but he compensated for his size with quickness and moxie. On the football field, he was known for slashing runs and long touchdown catches.

"He had good speed, and he was kind of an all-around athlete," recalled Michael Fay, a football teammate of Biden's at Archmere Academy, a Catholic school outside Wilmington, Delaware.

His classmates at Archmere called him "Dash," not as a shoutout to his elusiveness on the field, but because of his stutter.

"They called me Dash because of what I could not do in the classroom," Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir, "Promises to Keep." "I talked like Morse code. Dot-dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dash. "You gu-gu-gu-gu-guys sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!"

The stutter had been a source of embarrassment for as long as he could remember. But if his halting speech made him ashamed during the swirl of childhood and early adolescence, he could always rely on his athletic skills to lift him up.

"Sports was as natural to me as speaking was unnatural," Biden wrote. "And sports turned out to be my ticket to acceptance -- and more. I wasn't easily intimidated in a game, so even when I stuttered, I was always the kid who said, 'Give me the ball.'"

Going into Biden's senior year in 1960, the football team was coming off a 1-6 record, another in a string of losing seasons. At the start of the year, only 19 guys went out for the squad, so the new coach went through the lunch line to fill out his roster. "He was just looking for guys big enough to survive football," Fay said.

Despite a tacked-together roster and low expectations, Archmere went on to a storybook season, and Biden was a big part of it. The team went 8-0, winning its conference title. Biden scored 10 touchdowns, many on long receptions.

"Over our high school career, I threw Joe 20 touchdown passes," said Bill Peterman, Biden's high school quarterback, who went on to play at the Coast Guard Academy. He added, laughing: "Joe caught 19 of them."

Biden says the winning culture stuck with him. As vice president, he spoke at the 2012 Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame induction of his former coach, E. John Walsh. "He urged us to play the game the same way you lived your life, with passion and integrity," Biden said. "No matter how good you were, Coach always stressed that you were a teammate first."

After high school, Biden went to the University of Delaware, where he hoped to play football and maybe even go pro. But that dream lasted for just one semester on the freshman team, as he was forced to quit to focus on his flagging grades.

"When my first semester grades came out, my mom and dad told me I wouldn't be playing spring football," Biden wrote in his book. Speaking at a 2018 memorial service for legendary Delaware football coach Tubby Raymond, who led the Blue Hens after Biden graduated, he talked about the lessons he drew from football.

"I remember the first time I walked out on the practice field as a freshman and I was an 18-year-old kid," he said. "And it didn't take me long to realize that much more is expected of me and all those who walked out that day onto that practice field than our athletic ability.

"We are expected to be gentlemen. We are expected to conduct ourselves on the field and off the field the same way."

During a campaign swing though Pittsburgh with Steelers hero Franco Harris just before the election, Biden recalled that sports also had the power to bring joy to his two young sons even in the midst of devastation. In 1972, Steelers owner Art Rooney asked Harris and fellow running back Rocky Bleier to visit Biden's two preschool sons, Beau and Hunter, who were hospitalized after the horrific car crash that killed Biden's first wife, Neilia, and young daughter, Amy.

Afterward, "They had smiles on their face and each of them were holding a football signed by the entire Steel Curtain," Biden recalled.

In the U.S. Senate, Biden sponsored federal legislation outlawing performance-enhancing drugs, which he said he saw as a form of cheating that undermined the athletic ideal.

"If kids think that all of the best athletes are 'on the juice,' what does that teach them?" Biden said in a 2004 statement to the media, after 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; that cheating is OK. This offends me to my core. The United States is the ultimate meritocracy and it is absolutely un-American to take a performance-enhancing drug to get an unfair competitive advantage."

Through the years, Biden has been a strong supporter of Philadelphia's professional teams, and he was on the field in Minneapolis to help the Eagles celebrate their victory in Super Bowl LII. He also has been a backer of the teams at his alma mater, where he regularly turns up to attend games.

As vice president, he was in the stands to cheer on the Delaware women's basketball team when it knocked off North Carolina in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Afterward, he visited the locker room to congratulate the team. The following year, he had Delaware's men's basketball team visit the White House and dine at the vice president's residence after it won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in 2014. During his final weeks in office as vice president, Biden summoned Delaware's field hockey team to Washington to celebrate its 2016 national championship.

"He was so excited when we won the national championship in field hockey," Delaware athletic director Chrissi Rawak said. "He reached out immediately and said he would like to talk to our coach and then he invited us to his home in D.C. to celebrate the accomplishment." Biden set up a video call with the field hockey coach, Rolf van de Kerkhof. "It was amazing that he took the time to give me five, seven minutes of his time," the coach said. "He talked about us, and his grandchildren who play sports. He is a sports fanatic, that's for sure. He attributes his growth as a person to sports."

GOING FORWARD AS president, Biden has promised to scrap Department of Education rules drawn up during the Trump administration that gave more rights to students accused of sexual assault on campus. The rules also restrict how schools may adjudicate those allegations. Some advocates applauded the recent changes in Title IX regulations, saying they allow men accused of assault to defend themselves from specious charges. But many women's rights groups and others say the changes make survivors more reluctant to report assaults. The issue is particularly important at big-time colleges, where ESPN has found athletes are three times as likely as other students to be accused of sexual misconduct.

"Any backstepping on Title IX in unacceptable," the Biden platform says.

On a personal level, Biden, 78, has said his own participation in sports these days is limited to regular exercise to stay healthy and being a fan. He likes to golf, he occasionally cycles, and his brother claims he can still bench-press his weight. Most mornings, he has said, he works out on his Peloton exercise bike or treadmill and then lifts before starting work.

Even with his lifelong connection to the benefits and virtues of athletics, some analysts warn that Biden faces no easy task maneuvering sports back onto politically neutral turf. They worry that the country is just too polarized for that.

"The sports world has been able to occupy, throughout most of the history of this country, this middle ground of being purportedly apolitical but also being supportive of the president while also possessing this healing power," said Frank Andre Guridy, a Columbia University professor who studies sports history and social movements.

"I believe a lot of those beliefs are being fundamentally challenged now. I don't see how Biden can recapture that without a major change in our political culture."