President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are pitting themselves against LeBron James and Black athletes, as another police shooting of a Black man propels the country’s sports stars to a new level of political activism.
But unlike in 2017, when the president took aim at professional football players who kneeled for the national anthem to protest racial inequality, athletes’ activism in 2020 extends far more broadly, and the Black Lives Matter movement’s resonance across the country is far deeper. Sports stars’ embrace of the movement now threatens to undermine both Trump’s attempts to paint protesters as anarchists and his efforts to peel off Black voters from Democrat Joe Biden in the November election.
The NBA has led the way in the latest protests to spark the president’s anger. On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for Game 5 of their playoff series a in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., and the fatal shooting two protesters Tuesday in Kenosha, allegedly by a white teenager.
The Bucks’ decision prompted the NBA to postpone the remaining two playoff games on Wednesday and three more Thursday. Players in other professional sports leagues, including the WNBA, MLB and MLS and professional tennis, followed suit.
NBA players met Thursday and voted to resume the playoffs, according to ESPN.
ESPN analyst Maria Taylor called the Bucks’ protest “revolutionary,” and longtime sportscaster Bob Costas said he had never seen anything comparable to that in his career covering sports.
Asked by reporters Thursday about the protests, Trump responded that the NBA’s “ratings have been very bad.”
“Unfortunately, they’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing, for sports or the country,” he added.
Top White House officials were also dismissive, framing the protests as “silly” — rich athletes showing how fortunate they are to take a night off from work without consequence.
“NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work,” Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said on CNBC. “With the NBA, there’s a lot of activism and I think that they put a lot of slogans out, but I think that we need to turn that from slogans and signals to actual action that’s going to solve the problem.”
Those responses, however, ignore sports’ cultural significance — something of which the president, himself, is well aware.
Before Trump was in the Oval Office, he counted pro athletes like NFL quarterback Tom Brady and coaches like Bobby Knight among his celebrity friends. As president, he has tried to use his connections to the sports world to his advantage by putting pressure on NFL owners during the kneeling controversy, for example, or picking fights with NASCAR, the NFL or the NBA to illustrate his own political goals. Most recently, he shared his support for college athletes who want to play sports but are unable to due to the coronavirus.
For Trump, having sporting events again is an important symbol of the normalcy he and his administration are desperate to convey in the wake of the pandemic. The players’ strikes this week are unrelated to concerns about the virus, but threatens the president’s goal of getting American sports back onto the courts and fields — and his efforts to play down the racial justice protests that have convulsed the country.
Doug Heye, a veteran Republican communications strategist, cautioned against the administration getting into public spats with athletes or entire leagues.
“I don’t think you want to be in a tit for tat with [Los Angeles Lakers star] LeBron James or any other player or coach from the NBA,” he said. “That doesn’t help with the Black community, where he’s trying to peel off some segments of voters, and I think it’s a direction that doesn’t benefit him.”
James, a three-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP, has become increasingly outspoken on social issues in recent years, writing “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin” on his sneaker in 2012, donning an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt in warmups before a game in 2014 and launching a school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, in 2018.
Earlier this summer, James and a group of athletes and entertainers launched More Than a Vote, an organization that aims to register Black voters. The initiative this week announced a multimillion dollar collaborative project with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to recruit young people to volunteer as poll workers in Black communities inside swing states. More Than a Vote is also working to convert empty professional sports venues into polling places.
“Change doesn’t happen with just talk!! It happens with action and needs to happen NOW!” James tweeted Thursday. “[I]t’s on US to make a difference. Together. That’s why your vote is @morethanavote.”
“He’s on the list, I would say, of the top five probably most well known, famous, popular athletes in the world,” Jemele Hill, a former ESPN analyst who now contributes to The Atlantic, said on the “Morning Drive” podcast Thursday. “And he’s using that leverage when it comes to speaking out and doing things about injustice and racism and systemic oppression.”
Hill, who called Trump a white supremacist when she worked at ESPN, said she marvels at how outspoken James has become, recalling a time when the former Cleveland Cavalier was asked about genocide and tried to give an apolitical answer.
That used to be the norm in pro sports. Few star Black athletes had used their platforms to wade into political issues, with notable exceptions including Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists during the national anthem at the medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and Muhammad Ali, who was ostracized for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. NBA legend Michael Jordan famously refused to weigh in on the 1990 Senate race between the racist incumbent Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, a Black Democrat, reasoning that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
The consequences for speaking out are now less severe as they once were, although former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not been able to get a job in the league since the 2016-17 season, when he began what has become a trend of athletes kneeling during the national anthem.
Trump made political hay out of that movement, declaring at one 2017 rally that when a player kneeled, NFL owners ought to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”
But as Hill pointed out, “You can’t fire LeBron James. He’s not gonna get cut. There’s no consequence that he’s necessarily gonna face. … So no matter how vocal he becomes, there’s nothing you can do to him.”
The Trump campaign has instead tried to counter the growing activism of athletes with a handful of defenders from the pro sports world. Three Black former NFL players have spoken at this week’s Republican National Convention to vouch for Trump, who won just 8 percent of Black voters in 2016. On Monday, former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Herschel Walker rejected charges that Trump is racist and cast his policies as much more impactful than anything the NBA has done.
“Just because someone loves and respects the flag, our national anthem and our country doesn’t mean they don’t care about social justice. I care about all of those things, and so does Donald Trump,” said Walker, a longtime friend of the president. “He shows how much he cares about social justice and the Black community through his actions. And his actions speak louder than any stickers or slogans on a jersey.”
On Thursday night, the campaign aired a video dedicated to American athletes, featuring videos of championship teams visiting the White House and a clip of Trump saying, “we’ve got to get our sports back.”
The convention speakers have all but ignored the latest high-profile shooting of an African American man by a white police officer. The president and his supporters have insteated pointed to violent clashes between demonstrators and police in Kenosha as a threat to suburban voters.
“The more chaos and anarchy and violence reign, the better it is for who is the clear choice for who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on “Fox & Friends.”
Still, Kushner told POLITICO in an interview he planned to contact James at some point Thursday. The White House, however, did not respond to a request for comment on any outreach.