donald trump / Racism / Sports

Trump, LeBron, Michael and Camus

President Trump’s latest media distraction involving basketball legends LeBron James and Michael Jordan raises the question whether one can remain truly neutral in the era of Trump.

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For non-basketball fans, LeBron James just finished an epic playoff run where he carried a mediocre Cavalier team to the NBA Finals – his eighth-consecutive appearance.  This achievement ignited debate over whether he or six-time NBA Champion Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time (or at least in the modern post-Bill Russell era).

James has had a busy offseason, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers and launching his I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio that will include free college for graduates.  In interviews surrounding the school opening, James criticized President Trump for using sports to divide the country – particularly in his criticism of NFL players’ protest concerning the national anthem.

Trump fired back right away, maligning James and embracing Michael Jordan by saying “I like Mike!”

Michael Jordan has a history of avoiding politics.  Jordan, who shot the winning shot for North Carolina in the 1982 NCAA Finals, famously declined an invitation to support the African-American Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt’s campaign against the unrepentant racist Senator Jesse Helms, noting that Republicans buy sneakers too.

Jordan, however, later did support Senate and Presidential candidate Barack Obama, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Yet Jordan responded quickly to Trump’s tweet by releasing a statement that “I support LJ. He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”  While some saw this as a clear rebuke to Trump, others criticized Jordan for not speaking out more forcefully.

The incident reminded me of Albert Camus’ short story “The Guest“.  Set during the Algerian Civil War, it involves a teacher in a remote schoolhouse who is brought a prisoner by a French soldier and ordered to deliver him to authorities.   The teacher tries to maintain his neutrality by only partially delivering the prisoner, but is condemned for it nonetheless.  The story demonstrates that in times of great division or moral peril, there can be no neutrality.

While we are not in a civil war, President Trump is increasingly a polarizing figure and his strategy for 2018 and 2020 appears to be to ramp up his divisiveness to stir up the resentment and bigotry that motivates his base.  Given Trump’s penchant for picking fights with black athletes, it is unlikely that his dispute with James is over (although the First Lady has praised James).

Watching how this kerfuffle unfolds, particularly with respect to whether Jordan is compelled to further embrace LeBron James, may tell us a lot about how divided we truly are as a nation.  The more toxic Trump becomes, the more likely it is that someday we will reach that point when there can be no neutrality over his politics.  History, however, has shown us that that is a very dangerous place to be.