CLEVELAND — LeBron James is not worried about alienating a segment of the shoe-purchasing public.
Where Michael Jordan once infamously asserted his apolitical bona fides by saying that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” James was given the opportunity at the NBA Finals on Tuesday to weigh in on the latest edition of Donald Trump Fights With Athletes.
Players will often give this kind of thing a pass, especially amid the glare of a championship series. But James, who last year called the U.S. president a “bum,” when he cancelled the White House visit of the Golden State Warriors, had much to say on the subject.
“It’s typical of him,” he said of Trump, who cancelled the White House visit of the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles when most of them declined to take part, then immediately blasted them for “abandoning their fans” and accusing them of disagreeing with his insistence that they “proudly stand for the National Anthem.” (None of the Eagles knelt during the anthem last season.)
James said he knew that whether his Cleveland Cavaliers or the Warriors win the Finals this year, neither team wants the invitation to meet the president. He said he hoped that the new controversy didn’t take away from what Eagles had accomplished in winning the NFL championship in February.
“Let’s not let someone uninviting you to their house take away from that moment,” James said. “Because I think the championship – winning a Super Bowl or winning a Stanley Cup or winning a World Series or winning an NBA championship or (college) championship — is way bigger than getting invited to the White House, especially with him in there, in my opinion.”
That is called dunking on someone.
James wasn’t alone in speaking out about Trump on Tuesday. Steph Curry, the Warriors star, said he agreed that neither team was interested in a White House visit. And Steve Kerr, the Golden State coach, said he thought “the president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide us, all of us in this country, for political gain. So it’s just the way it is. I think we all look forward to the day when we can go back to just having a celebration of athletic achievement and celebrate Americans for their achievement, their good deeds.”
Kerr said he hoped things would go back to normal in three years. Zing.
That all of this catharsis was happening at the NBA Finals was not particularly surprising, as the league has become quite a safe space for blunt anti-Trump talk. It’s a stark contrast with the National Football League, whose off-the-field leaders have been plainly spooked by him since last fall. League owners recently changed their rules — without the blessing of the players’ union — to require all players to stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room. They did this because they were tired of being thoroughly pantsed by Trump every time he felt like moaning about football players and, surprise, he’s still moaning about football players. The NFL can’t even cave properly.
Also not surprising is that the NFL remained silent on Tuesday even as Trump complained that players who stay in the locker room will be as disrespectful to the United States as those who knelt during the anthem. The NFL, mightiest of the sports leagues, has long treated Trump with deference, and the president has responded with contempt. In the early days of his administration, the Super Bowl took place in Houston when his office had first imposed a travel ban on people from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, both known supporters of Trump, were asked about the controversy, and neither said much. Those questions and their answers were expunged from the NFL’s transcripts of the press conferences.
The NBA left everything said on Tuesday in the official transcriptions, and in the video clips that were quickly distributed. Similarly, when commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the NFL’s anthem policy change last week, he didn’t demure. He noted the controversy over the January incident between Milwaukee police and the Bucks’ Sterling Brown, who was confronted late at night in an empty drugstore parking lot and eventually handcuffed and Tasered. Recently published videos show at least one officer stepping on his ankle while he is prone and not resisting. “It was difficult to watch,” Silver said. He said that one of the developments of recent years is that “people like me who aren’t subjected, frankly, to that kind of treatment, are becoming much more aware of how a certain part of our society views law enforcement and their interactions with law enforcement.”
And that, that one sentence, is point of all of this. It’s why Colin Kaepernick, in the fall of 2016, stopped standing for the national anthem. It’s why other players joined him. The NBA requires its players to stand for the anthem, thanks for a rule that has been in place since the ‘80s. But Tuesday was a reminder that it sure doesn’t mind if they speak freely.
It hasn’t even been bad for business, and in a way that the president can understand: Television ratings are up.
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