Do sport and politics mix? As far as the NFL and the NBA are concerned, the question is a moot point, as their ongoing acrimonious relationship between the most high-profile American sports and President Trump continues to simmer. Yet as more famous names enter the debate and the war of words takes new directions, perhaps this is exactly what America needs.
Last week, it came down to LeBron James publicly stating that Trump “Don’t give a f*** about the people,” and Laura Ingraham from Fox News commenting that James should “Shut up and dribble.”
With the words barely out, America and the world fell silent for a moment. There was a general sensation of “Did that really just happen?” Black American sports star raises his concerns about racial oppression in the United States and white newscaster opines that he should shut his mouth and go back to playing with his ball.
Opening the eyes of the people
The exchange might have been shocking, but it was also exactly what was needed. As the situation becomes increasingly unedifying, those of us who have sat, perhaps even for decades, stupefied but with a vague feeling at the backs of our minds and our hearts that something is not right are slowly but surely being stirred in to action.
Declaring almost open war with the biggest sporting franchises in America could be the most telling action of the Trump presidency. Sport is a factor that unites us all – black or white, rich or poor. From the disenfranchised throwing a ball around in the back streets of Brooklyn to the super rich in the Hollywood Hills, everyone likes to log on to Winner Sports to back their favorite team, or to tune in to Monday Night Football on their TVs.
The NFL Protests
Ask when it all began, and we could find ourselves trawling through 200 years as we pick America’s racial politics to bits. However, President Trump’s place in this particular chapter of history commenced with his typically calm and measured reaction to NFL players declining to stand for the National Anthem.
It started as a one man protest by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remained seated during the traditional pre-game playing of the Star Spangled Banner throughout 2016. In a post-match game, he explained his action, saying: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
By 2017, other footballers had followed his lead, and the phenomenon of football players taking a knee during the National Anthem became a topic of global debate.
However, it was President Trump’s reaction that turned peaceful protest into something that looks increasingly like all-out war. The NFL and the franchises chose their words carefully, with the former saying that players are “encouraged but not required” to stand and 49ers coach Chip Kelly remarking that Kaepernick’s action is his “right as a citizen.”
President Trump, however, caused outrage. Addressing a rally for Luther Strange in Huntsville Alabama, he commented that any “son of a bitch” who refused to stand should be fired instantly.
The war spreads to the NBA
The widespread condemnation of President Trump’s attack on the rights of American citizens, even those who are famous sports stars, to make a peaceful political protest against racial injustice was not restricted to the NFL.
NBA stars including Warriors players David West and Stephen Curry were quick to speak up. Curry slammed the president’s words, saying: “That’s not what leaders do,” while West remarked: “We know we’re in a fight.”
President Trump’s reaction to the growing dissent was to take to Twitter, stating that the Golden State Warriors would not be welcome at the White House, and that the traditional invitation to the NBA Champions would not be extended in 2017.
Airing the wound
And so we arrive in 2018, with LeBron James’ remarks and a Fox presenter’s responses that are almost Trump-like in their insensitivity. James was being interviewed alongside fellow Warriors star Kevin Durant, and was asked to give his views on the political climate. He said that the person with the top job in America: “is someone who doesn’t understand the people. And really don’t give a f*** about the people. And while we cannot change what comes out of that man’s mouth, we can continue to alert the people that watch us, that this is not the way.”
Speaking on Fox News, Laura Ingraham’s comments could not have got off to a worse start. “Must they run their mouths like that?” she asked, not specifying whether the “they” referred to was black people, sports stars or just Americans in general. Concluding her remarks with the opinion that James and Durant should just “shut up and dribble,” was the icing on the cake, and has provoked more debate across the front and back pages of the American press than anything else.
And that, at least, is something to be celebrated. Sometimes, a wound needs fresh air in order to truly heal, and it could be that the crass and insensitive comments from the far right will do more to place issues of racial equality where they belong on the political schedule than anything else.