For the past four years, Trump used sports in a way no American political figure has ever thought to try. He attempted to demonize them because so many prominent figures disagreed with him. He has instigated petty feuds with the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick. He went after the entire NFL for kneeling. He barked at the criticisms of journalist Jemele Hill. He also went as far as taking credit for the Big Ten returning to play football after initial coronavirus concerns.
To energize his base of supporters, Trump tried to belittle and divide a diverse and sheltered world of sports. Trump awakened, unified and mobilized some of the most competitive adversaries he has faced. He gave the politically agnostic among them just what they needed to activate: an opponent. Combine that with social issues that are chillingly personal to many athletes, and sports have been politicized in a more overt manner than ever.
The result is bad for ratings, Trump likes to say. But it could be worse for the president. It is his fault that sports are like this. Athletes didn’t just decide one morning to become what they hadn’t aspired, as a collective, to be. Trump targeted them, expecting an easy win. And the aggressive response has been far more controlled and strategic than he may have envisioned.
We’ll start to see the scoreboard Tuesday, but regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden wins the election, there is no denying sports have played a role in fighting the incumbent’s unapologetic attempt to keep down voter turnout. While voter intimidation and suppression tactics remain a concern, there’s an inspiring energy and sense of mission about this election now, one that emphasizes public desire to be responsible stewards of a democracy. Every corner of the sports world has contributed to that effort. Since the return of sports in late July from a virus-forced hiatus, the message of “VOTE” has been on display almost as much as the score of the game.
Although it can be inferred that a majority of athletes want to vote out Trump and other politicians who seem unconcerned about the pandemic and systemic racism, most haven’t explicitly told people whom to vote for, focusing instead on engagement. They pushed their teams to turn more arenas and stadiums into voting centers. Last week, Chris Paul, the National Basketball Players Association’s president, led about 2,500 people on a march to a North Carolina voting site.
Athletes have made simple, universal points: listen, learn, care, participate. They want people to be good citizens and vote. They want police to stop killing with impunity. They want to encourage humanity.
Shame on these unspoiled and selfless athletes.
In August, the NBA staged a strike after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and it resulted in nearly all of sports pausing for a few days. After the league returned to play, then-Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers shared a direct, incisive thought about his sport’s role amid the societal agony.
“It isn’t the NBA’s job to change the world,” he said, “but it is the NBA’s job to be a part of the world.”
Sports relish insulation. The games are about escaping worlds. It’s not a privilege exclusive to fans. Actually, the participants disappear into the experience the most. At the highest levels, many athletes receive an opportunity to abandon poverty, to go from rags to riches. Then they escape to this new life of money and fame. Along the journey, the hall passes to exit real life keep coming. When leaders in the neighborhood see prospects with the talent to make it, they protect them. When they become essential to their schools’ success and prestige, rules and academic standards are sometimes massaged to accommodate them. When they make it big in the pros, they become so removed from reality that everyday tasks are handled and afternoon naps are an expectation, not a luxury.
Every step of the way, the insulation thickens. The bubble environments that the NBA, WNBA and NHL developed to complete their seasons were more than coronavirus-free fortresses. They were metaphors. In sports, it seems you can always build a wall.
But it’s not an impenetrable way of life. Extraordinary athleticism may provide insulation from issues of poverty and the failures of public education, but it doesn’t prevent stars from getting pulled over for driving while Black. It doesn’t keep the president from responding to their protests — their desperate pleas for the voiceless to be heard — by referring to one of them as a “son of a bitch” and saying they should be fired.
Trump picked the wrong fight, and there are hints of bigotry in the way he underestimated Black athletes and women of all races. He doesn’t believe in their empowerment. He thought they wouldn’t push back in a forceful manner, and if they did, he envisioned more of the extreme polarity and chaos he prompted while going after the NFL in 2017.
But the landscape is different now. Suffering is widespread and multifaceted, creating more pathways to empathy. And sports figures have adjusted, which is what they do best. Most of them spend their lives overcoming odds and accomplishing incredible feats. They spend their lives striving.
Trump didn’t respect their strength and resolve, and because of that, he inadvertently galvanized a source of tremendous, underutilized influence in America: the athlete. The Black athlete, in particular.
Such a movement has been building for nearly a decade in response to police brutality. But brazen racism created a level of urgency and commitment unprecedented in major American team sports leagues.
For sports, the motivation is not to flaunt political clout. Many players have admitted they are voting for the first time. Their franchise owners largely support Republican candidates. Some owners have thrown significant money toward Trump, but athletes haven’t yet targeted them. It’s proof that the sports world prefers to rest somewhere between apolitical and tolerant of ideological differences. It’s also proof that athletes are focused on how best to channel their influence.
“I’m not going to give my energy to that, because it’s not surprising,” James said during the NBA Finals when asked about the discrepancy between the interests of players and owners. “My mom has always told me, ‘Control what you can control.’ And I can’t control that. What I can control is what I’m doing on my side and trying to have people gather around me and gather around my initiatives and doing what we’re doing to try to effect change, not only in our communities but outside our communities with the youth, and let them understand how important their voice is and their vote is to our society.
“It’s hard as hell, because they just don’t believe it. They don’t believe that their vote or their message or their minds or their voices matter. But that’s where my energy is, on continuing to push the envelope in my community, continue to let them know that they are the future, they are the reason why there will be change.”
Trump chooses to counter James and his “More Than A Vote” initiative only with more quips about low NBA television ratings and rhetoric to encourage fans booing and chanting insults about the Los Angeles Lakers superstar at a Pennsylvania rally Monday. It’s a fitting pre-election curtain closer to the athlete-Trump conflict: The sports star works to make sure the people are heard while the president taunts and plays in the mud.
Throughout history, civic leaders have been wise to use sports to unify and excite. The tradition includes trips to the White House, keys to the city, declarations of days celebrating some grand accomplishment, friendly bets between governors, photo opportunities. Feel-good stuff. But from the beginning of the Trump presidency, few in sports wanted to let a divisive president use them for grip-and-grin publicity.
Perhaps that offended Trump. So he became the villain and whined that he wasn’t allowed to be the hero. He has some support in the sports world, but overwhelmingly he is a foe. He is the most powerful human to scoff at concerns from athletes — reflecting the concerns of the communities they represent — about humanity.
Now, after four years of jawing and antagonism, the battle truly enters the political arena. Athletes are hoping they did their part to ignite voters in a way that Biden, a 77-year-old political lifer trying to represent change, could not accomplish alone. The early voting numbers suggest the nation will be engaged, and if so, that’s a victory for the democratic process, a victory that shamefully wasn’t assured because of presidential interference.
Trumpism has done much to incite and demoralize. The spirit within sports remains indomitable, however. It doesn’t mean the athletes will win, and if they do, it doesn’t mean they will prove to be a critical factor. But equality is a game that neither ends nor awards MVPs. It demands a constant desire to improve, defend and evolve. At this important moment, the pursuit found some ideal competitors who could no longer justify staying in their cozy and insular world.
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