Donald Trump has stomped into just about every arena of American life. Last Friday, he muscled his way onto the basketball court, drafting Michael Jordan and denigrating LeBron James. In a late-night tweet, Trump attacked James’s appearance with Don Lemon on CNN, where James was promoting a new elementary school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, which provides free tuition, uniforms, food, transportation and other benefits for underprivileged children, thanks to the LeBron James Family Foundation.
It’s easy to understand why Trump would attack James. James had just said that the president was using sports to divide the country, and the notoriously thin-skinned Trump often responds to critics with petty taunts. But why bring Michael Jordan into the mix?
Trump’s “I like Mike!” endorsement was less a vote on basketball’s greatest player and more a preference for a politically neutral black superstar. (In 1990, Jordan famously refused to help black Democratic Senate nominee Harvey Gantt in his North Carolina race against the racist Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican.) And while it may seem like the president’s polarization of sports is a unique feature of the Trump administration, he is actually joining an old debate. Trump may be widening the cultural fault lines over sports, but those cracks have existed for at least a half-century.
In the first half of the 20th century, when great black athletes won praise for their achievements, they appeared to uphold principles of U.S. democracy: inclusion, opportunity, equality. Consider Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. By the era of the civil rights movement, however, black athletes began using their platform in new ways. They insisted that sport was less a vehicle for democratic inclusion and more a reflection of the nation’s racial hypocrisies.
Bill Russell offers one instructive example of how black athletes could both advocate for justice and ignite a conservative backlash. Russell is one of the few athletes besides James and Jordan who might claim the mantle as the National Basketball Association’s best player in history. He is unquestionably the greatest winner in the history of U.S. team sports. He led the University of San Francisco to consecutive NCAA titles and a 55-game winning streak, captured a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and then, during a 13-year career with the Boston Celtics, won five MVP awards and 11 NBA titles — the last two, in 1968 and 1969, as a player-coach.
Moreover, Russell was basketball’s key barrier-breaking hero. Though not the first African American in the NBA, he was the first black superstar. His airborne shot-blocking revolutionized the game. In the sport’s premier rivalry, the media cast him as the team-oriented winner, opposite the selfish individualist force of Wilt Chamberlain. Moreover, Russell worked in concert with white players and coaches. His triumphant Celtics were racial integration in action.
But Russell, like football’s Jim Brown or boxing’s Muhammad Ali, consciously defied the expectations laden upon black athletes to exude deference and humility. He refused to sign autographs, and he adopted a scowling, regal demeanor in public. Moreover, Russell resisted racist double standards. In 1961, he led a boycott of an exhibition game in Kentucky after his black teammates were refused service at a restaurant. In 1964, he accused the NBA of a racial quota system, limiting rosters to only four or five African Americans.
In his 1966 autobiography “Go Up for Glory,” Russell relayed a personal ordeal of racist slurs and bigoted reporters. He further decried how African Americans suffered from job discrimination and police brutality. “If all this sounds like sour grapes, let me say that I have grown tired of sports biographies in which everyone is a do-gooder and everything is sugar and spice,” he wrote. “Either you tell the truth as you see it, just as you play your guts out, or you shouldn’t be in it.”
He involved himself in the fight to bring equitable resources to Boston Public Schools. He attended the March on Washington and conferences at the White House. He drew inspiration from travels to Africa and bought property in Liberia. He defended Ali’s decision to refuse induction in the Vietnam War. He supported the movement to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
In short, Russell threw himself into political action when his conscience demanded it, and he insisted on projecting himself as a proud black man.
For that, Russell paid a price. Despite the cheers in Boston Garden, he received a steady stream of hate mail. The FBI file on him called him “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for children.” Though some Boston reporters admired him, others called him “the type who’s going to keep this race trouble alive and festering much longer than necessary.” His family once found their home robbed and trashed, with a racist epithet spray-painted on one wall and human feces under Russell’s bed covers.
Russell’s political defiance and black skin meant that he was never as beloved in Boston as Ted Williams, Bob Cousy or Tom Brady. But his authenticity and courage have provided a model for black athletes in the age of Trump. In September 2017, after the president blasted National Football League owners for tolerating the kneeling protests of racial injustice during the national anthem (he profanely excoriated the players themselves), Russell sent out his first-ever tweet: a photo of him wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom and taking a knee. “Just tell those NFL players, I’m with them,” he explained to a reporter.
Today’s sports world is an arena of political resistance — albeit one full of bizarreness and farce. Athletes from championship teams decline invitations to visit the White House, and Trump rescinds those invitations. James calls Trump a “bum,” and Trump calls James stupid. After this latest dust-up on Friday night, even the famously image-conscious Jordan weighed in, releasing a statement in support of James’s work to promote racial progress. Thanks to Trump, the actions and statements of black athletes are once again politically charged.
Bill Russell never expected other athletes to follow in his activist footsteps: The worlds of politics and sports are always changing, and every individual must choose their own path. But it remains clear where his loyalties lie. This past weekend, Russell sent another tweet proclaiming that if Trump is attacking you, it “means you must be doing something right.” Trump’s ire, he stated, is “the biggest compliment you can get.”