Log In

Reset Password

Athletes must retain political capital in post-Trump era

On the Saturday Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election, LeBron James tweeted a picture of his block of a lay-up by Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala to seal the 2016 NBA championship. Except it was altered, with Biden's head on James's body and President Donald Trump's noggin on Iguodala's.

Kevin B. Blackistone is an ESPN panellist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland

James followed with a tweet suggesting he would accept the customary invitation for a sports champion to visit the White House now that the president with whom he had so often sparred — dismissing Trump as a “bum” in 2017, when Trump disinvited the champion Warriors after they said they wouldn’t visit anyway — would be gone.

James and the Warriors were not alone in their sentiments and actions during the Trump era. So many Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they wouldn’t visit Trump’s White House that the petulant president, with his well-known fetish for crowd sizes, withdrew his invitation to them, too. The North Carolina men’s basketball championship team refused to entertain Trump. Many women’s champions weren’t extended invitations. While some college teams accepted invitations, professional teams such as the Washington Nationals and Capitals were so divided by Trump’s politics or behaviour — or both — that some of their players (Sean Doolittle, Braden Holtby) opted to break with team-mates accepting Trump's offer.

It all filled me with glee. I called for the public snubs after Trump was elected. I said if you believe sport can serve as an elixir to the fears and ignorance that afflict us — such as racism, sexism and xenophobia — no athletic teams should visit his White House. After all, Trump gave succour to white supremacists, behaved misogynistically without apology and was particularly hostile to foreigners of colour.

The blowback to his odious conduct reached a crescendo in the spring and summer. So many among us had enough of all the injurious “-isms” of the past four years — which were exposed in the wake of yet another black man's extrajudicial killing, to which the President again reacted with belligerence — that we took to the streets. Athletes such as the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon walked off courts and playing fields and into the protests.

“The scale of protest and public expression of political conviction in sport that we witnessed during the last year of the Trump presidency is unprecedented,” John Jay College sociologist Lucia Trimbur, author of the paper Taking a Knee, Making a Stand: Social Justice, Trump America, and the Politics of Sport, said to me this month via e-mail. "And though athletes have always protested, more athletes than ever intervened to demonstrate they no longer want to be implicated in the myth that sport is apolitical. Rather, they’ve illustrated that there is tremendous work athletes can do and power athletes hold in shaping social circumstances.“

Which is why James and others of his ilk should curb their enthusiasm before accepting another White House invitation, no matter that they often campaigned for the man who will shortly inhabit it.

For over the past few years, athletes turned their heretofore mostly pro forma visits to the White House into political statements that resonated beyond sports pages and broadcasts. They have explained themselves. Laid down the gauntlet. Doolittle didn’t offer a tepid excuse for staying away from the White House, as Michael Jordan did in 1991, when, after skipping a visit with George H.W. Bush, he said he wanted to spend his days off with his family. Doolittle cited, among other things, Trump’s racialised nativist policies that were antithetical to the work Doolittle and his wife, Eireann Dolan, have done with refugees seeking a better chance at life.

Golden State burnt Trump and his policies by announcing their title-winning 2017 team would celebrate “equality, diversity and inclusion” rather than visit his White House. One of their players at the time, David West, explained further that he and his team-mates wanted to make a statement against what they saw as Trump’s trampling of human rights.

Megan Rapinoe and her team-mates on the US women’s soccer team cited Trump’s anti-LGBTQ stances as reasons they dismissed any overture to celebrate their latest World Cup title at the White House.

“Should athletes and teams return to the White House under a Biden presidency? It’s complicated,” wrote University of Louisville professor Evan Frederick, who last summer published I’m Not going to the f***ing White House: Twitter Users React to Donald Trump and Megan Rapinoe, a study of social media's reaction to the spat between Rapinoe and Trump. “How do you justify an endorsement of a newly elected president until meaningful action is taken to address systemic issues that exploit, disenfranchise and adversely impact people of colour?"

Much of the celebration from James and other like-minded athletes this month was more because of the apparent defeat of another -ism — Trumpism — than the victory of a ticket made up of Barack Obama's vice-president and Kamala Harris, who will be the first woman in the vice-presidency as well as the first descendant of a mother from India and a black man from Jamaica. As lifelong social-justice fighter Angela Davis argued last year: “I don't see this election as being about choosing a candidate who will be able to lead us in the right direction. It will be about choosing a candidate who can be most effectively pressured into allowing more space for the evolving antiracist movement.”

Thus, with Biden’s win came relief. On the same day that Biden and Harris gave their acceptance speeches, the Nationals almost immediately invited Biden to throw out 2021’s first pitch, joining a tradition nearly every sitting president except Trump has participated in when Washington has had a big-league team.

But relief cannot breed complacency. If James and other athletes are sincere in their advocacy for immigrant rights, their fight against voter suppression, their promotion of a return to ample federal government support for public education, they should continue to use their White House invitations — which seek to use them to score political points — to make points of their own.

Hold the next occupants of the White House accountable to their promises. Don’t rollick with a President Biden who would have in his cabinet Rahm Emanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago whose city, in full antithesis to black athletes’ protests of racist policing, suppressed police dashcam video of Chicago cops gunning down unarmed black teen Laquan McDonald. Keep in mind Davis’s tepid justification for supporting such a ticket: as just the most likely candidates to be influenced to do the right things.

Or, as Frederick concluded to me via e-mail, “I don't think we can so quickly give in to conventions of the past for the sake of good PR.”

It is time that the reward shouldn’t be from the White House to the athletes for a job well done, but the other way around.

Kevin B. Blackistone is an ESPN panellist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published November 24, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated November 23, 2020 at 7:18 pm)

Athletes must retain political capital in post-Trump era

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon