The National Football League and the National Basketball Association have taken completely different approaches to President Donald Trump. While the two leagues have different fan bases and a different balance of power between athletes and owners, it is fair to say the NBA has done a much better job in handling the challenges of a president who delights in using African-American athletes as pawns in his race-baiting and culture wars.
While the NFL owners have tried to mollify Trump by announcing fines for teams if players don’t stand for the national anthem, Trump is not to be satisfied. He wants to dump barrels of salt in this wound so that the white-grievance-agitated base will applaud. If Trump had his druthers, he would drag every last African-American athlete out of the locker room to stand and sing. He called players “sons of bitches” — to the delight of an overwhelmingly white audience. He accuses them of being anti-military and anti-flag. (Some of the players have actually served in the military, unlike the “bone spur” president who avoided military service. Incidentally, Trump hasn’t had the decency to visit troops in combat zones.)
And he’s willing to lie about and attack Philadelphia Eagles players who did not kneel during the season. Philadelphia’s mayor blasted Trump: “Cities need to stand up in this country, and many mayors have stood up in this country against this tyrant,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “He is trying to turn this country into a dictatorship by ignoring the courts and by saying and doing what he wants, by ignoring the Department of Justice. … This will all come to a conclusion, and it won’t be a good ending for him.”
Meanwhile, arguably the greatest athlete of our time, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James — who called Trump in a tweet a “bum” after Trump withdrew the invite for the champion Golden State Warriors last year — struck back. After Trump’s political stunt with the Eagles, James said neither team in the championship finals “wants the invite” to the White House. Warriors star Steph Curry seconded that view.
And then Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an eloquent and outspoken advocate on issues such as gun safety, said: “I think the president has made it clear he’s going to try to divide us — all of us — in this country for political gain. That’s just the way it is. I think we all look forward to the day when we can go back to just having a celebration of athletic achievement and celebrate Americans for their achievement, their good deeds.” He noted, “The irony is that the Eagles have been nothing but fantastic citizens in their own community.”
The NBA has figured it out. They are the cool kids, the stars. Trump is a divisive politician, a petty narcissist who would gladly humiliate athletes and their teams. The NBA athletes, encouraged by their league, are engaged in all sorts of causes to make their communities better, including protesting police violence against African-Americans. They ignore Trump and are the better for it. They’ve built a rock-solid following that is racially, economically and politically diverse — and supportive of athletes who decline to play Trump’s noxious political game.
Meanwhile, the NFL owners — who botched responses to domestic violence and brain-injury controversies before Trump came along — get played for suckers. After the latest Trump stunt, they should collectively decline to go to the White House during the remainder of Trump’s term, reaffirm that players can do as they please with regard to the anthem (the number of kneelers declined precipitously during the last season) and, like the NBA, denounce racial divisiveness. At least the owners might earn some respect rather than being disloyal to their players as patsies in Trump’s race-baiting games. Between the owners’ pandering to Trump and their insufficient response to brain injuries of their players, many fans are now or will become ex-fans. If they haven’t already, they’ll find other sports to watch.