For normal people, sports often serve as a refuge from politics. The president of the United States is not among them. Donald Trump’s idea of a spectator sport, it can’t be emphasized too often, is WWE professional wrestling: a phony, pre-scripted spectacle often on racial and ethnic themes, mainly featuring steroid abusers insufficiently athletic for real pro competition.
Not for nothing was Trump voted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame years before he was elected to anything else. Swaggering, boasting, name-calling and throwing laughably fake punches at antagonists who topple like bowling pins — those are Trump’s skills.
Along the way, he appears to have learned how gullible and easily manipulated millions of Americans can be, how distracted by publicity stunts, how eager to boo cartoon villains and cheer make-believe heroes such as himself. But who’d have thought that even Trump would attempt to govern the country that way?
His attacks on professional athletes are basically Big Brother’s “Two Minutes Hate” in football cleats.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag,” Trump told an Alabama audience, “to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s FIRED!’”
Listening to crowd reaction, I suspect they’d have cheered even louder if he’d shouted “Send those darkies back to Africa!”
Because that’s what it was all about.
About precisely this, as seen in a Facebook comment on a family member’s page: “Most NFL fans are white Patriots that are not going to pay $300 to $1000 to go see a bunch of entitled blacks take a big (bleep) on the nation! One of the biggest things that makes millionaires out of poor lower IQ blacks is football and they are too stupid not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg for some dumbass reason like sitting through the national anthem.”
Actually, they knelt. Colin Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid wrote a column for The New York Times explaining why: “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”
Reid, an LSU All-American, wanted to make a statement about a police killing of a black man in Baton Rouge. He also pointed out that the much-criticized Kaepernick has donated and raised millions to feed the hungry in Somalia and the USA. He finds it puzzling that President Trump calls people like him “sons of bitches” while defending Charlottesville neo-Nazis as “very fine people.”
I’m not always a big fan of his prose style, but The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates may have put it most succinctly: “His ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”
Ultimately, it’s a loser’s game.
How things will shake out politically remains to be seen. In the short run, few politicians have suffered from wrapping themselves in the flag. But the reaction of NFL owners and, frankly, white football stars has not gone Trump’s way. Even New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, his sometime golfing partner, has defended players’ right to protest.
Interesting that Brady’s no-show at the White House last year passed without comment, don’t you think? Meanwhile, Trump made a personal attack on Golden State’s brilliant point guard Steph Curry for expressing his own reluctance to go. The president may have failed to take into account that sports stars have constituencies of their own. My view is that somebody who’s got a grudge against Steph Curry has serious problems. Basketball’s a quintessentially American game, and few athletes compete with his kind of open-hearted joy.
On the other hand, far better that Trump should pick fights with the likes of Curry and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell than continue his angry-toddler dispute with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. You know, the one where two insecure braggarts threaten to exterminate millions with nuclear weapons.
Surrounded by bodyguards all his life, Trump has no idea what can go wrong when one blowhard confronts somebody even crazier. There’s no sign the Korean demagogue has a clue either. North Korea has been making absurd threats against the United States for three generations now, largely to keep its own population in thrall.
It’s in “King Lear”: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”
Meanwhile, come later on, I’ll be tuned in to the Boston Red Sox game. Three blessed hours, give or take, where the name “Trump” will not be mentioned.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.