In a few short years, a crime-fighting idea born at the Glenarden Community Center in Prince George's County became a national sensation. It was called Midnight Basketball. A retired government worker turned town manager, G. Van Standifer, started it in hopes of grabbing the attention of young men who seemed to occupy themselves with little more than trouble at the most troubling time of day, after dark.
President George H. Bush was so taken by the success he saw one night at the Glenarden gym in 1991 that he made it part of his Thousand Points of Light public service campaign. By 1994, Midnight Basketball spread to other cities and towns. President Clinton even tacked it onto the now-infamous omnibus anti-crime bill as a block grant beneficiary.
And there, it was attacked.
House Republicans conjured the racial imagery of basketball by deriding the late night games as "hugs for thugs," that euphemism for the kind of black men who were central personalities of midnight basketball and, maybe more importantly, could be exploited as political pokers to stoke the racial fears of the Republican base, solidify that foundation and expand it.
Or do exactly with black men what President Trump has done with NFL players, most of whom are black, who have dared protest against him and social injustice with the national anthem and flag as their platform.
Trump denied that his harangue against what was a small number of NFL players who picked up where out-of-work quarterback Colin Kaepernick left off – sitting, kneeling or punching a fist into the air during the national anthem to protest the unchecked extrajudicial killing of black men in America – had anything to do with skin color.
"I never said anything about race," Trump responded last month. "This has nothing to do with race or anything else."
Yet, in poll after poll since, the public has responded to questions on how it feels about NFL players using the anthem to protest in a similar manner it has about supporting Trump's candidacy and nine-month-old presidency. Just as white citizens were more likely to support Trump's candidacy, and less likely to be critical of his presidency, they are more likely to be critical of NFL players who demonstrate at games. And those white Americans are more likely to identify as Republicans, if not part of Trump's base.
A Quinnipiac Poll released last week found that 60 percent of white voters disapproved of NFL players kneeling during the anthem, while 79 percent of black voters approved. And 67 percent of Republicans, eight out of 10 of whom national statistics show are white, also charged that the NFL players acted inappropriately.
A poll reported last week by The New York Times revealed that Trump's base has developed a more negative view of the NFL since the president went on the offensive against its protesting players, and the owners reluctant to punish them. Conversely, the poll found that Hillary Clinton voters, who were far more diverse racially than Trump voters, continued to hold a 60 percent approval rating for the league.
Morning Consult, a polling concern the Times cited, found sharp differences in opinion by race on how NFL games were unfolding. Among its findings was that 53 percent of white respondents echoed the president by viewing player demonstrations as disrespectful of the military; just 13 percent of black respondents felt the same. It also found that just 38 percent of white citizens supported social activism by NFL players, while 72 percent of black people in the same poll felt the opposite.
It is against that background that we should not be surprised that the president first injected his feelings about NFL players protesting into a campaign rally speech he gave in Huntsville, Ala., supporting one extremely conservative white senatorial candidate against another for the seat vacated by an equally conservative Republican, Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. Attorney General.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!' " Trump screamed in Huntsville earlier this month. "You know, some owner is going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired.'"
Last November marked the 10th consecutive presidential election in which Alabama voted for the Republican candidate. It's been a quarter-century since a Democrat won a Senate election there. Alabama is as red as a red state can be. It was the perfect platform for this president to use black NFL players as political fodder.
As University of Alabama political scientist Richard Fording predicted with certainty to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution a year ago: "Despite the fact that black voters comprise roughly a quarter of the electorate in Alabama, Trump will likely win by more than 20 points. This means that at least 75 percent of white voters will vote for Trump."
Morning Consult further observed that Trump's infusion of combative rhetoric into the NFL around the players' protests turned the league almost overnight into one of the most polarizing brands in the country, six rungs behind the first, Trump Hotels.
All of this has been a development not lost on DeMaurice Smith, who represents all NFL players as their union's chief executive. Speaking early this month at a convention of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, a few days after the president profanely lambasted a large part of Smith's membership and called for their ouster, Smith tossed a long prepared keynote talk out the window and quickly, and emotionally, crafted a new one.
He started with a video clip of the president's verbal assault from Alabama.
Eventually, Smith said: "It's not about the flag; it's not about the anthem. Our men are sons of military members; our men have deep connections in law enforcement. We have men who served in the military.
"But we also have men who come from different backgrounds, from a different life, from different experiences," he continued. "To borrow a line from James Baldwin, 'When you look at the issues in America, you see them from the perspective of your own reality.' "
The president's reality is calculatedly one-dimensional.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.