In just the last 48 hours, President Donald Trump has lashed out at not only LaVar Ball, the polarizing father of NBA rookie Lonzo Ball, but also NFL star running back Marshawn Lynch.
Trump took Ball to task for diminishing the role he played in securing the release of his son and two other UCLA basketball players from jail in China for shoplifting (literally tweeting that he should have “left them in jail”) and Lynch for standing for the Mexican national anthem but not the American one. And in what has now become a familiar bullying tactic from Trump, he tried to intimidate the NFL by suggesting Lynch should be suspended.
So just to be clear, the president has had more unkind words to say about these two men than the accused pedophile running for a Senate seat in Alabama and the Russian ‘leader’ who all of our top intelligence agencies have confirmed deliberately interfered in our election process last year through a coordinated smear and disinformation campaign.
Besides their stature and significance in national politics, there is another very distinct quality that separates Lynch and Ball from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Roy Moore: they’re black.
Whenever President Trump needs to change the subject from his failing domestic agenda, or the ongoing investigation into whether his campaign committed treason, or his historically bad poll numbers, or reports of infighting among his staff, or those persistent rumors that he may have participated in a pee party with Russian prostitutes, he has one fall-back position — hate on a black person, and preferably one who is connected to the world of sports.
LaVar Ball and Marshawn Lynch are not special, they are just the latest entry in the Trump racial grievance sweepstakes. They along with Colin Kaepernick, Steph Curry, Jemele Hill, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have all become convenient punching bags for a man many consider the most petty and reckless commander-in-chief in recent memory.
Curiously, Trump has not resorted to the same kind of name-calling when it comes to his white critics in the world of sports like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich.
That may be because ever since his days of fear-mongering over the Central Park Five, Trump has seen tangible benefits when he puts black people on notice. His ire for our community only intensified when he took up the mantle of birtherism long after no respectable Republican wanted a part of it. And he was rewarded with a victorious, insurgent run for the GOP nomination.
But his attacks on black sports figures has a unique air about them that has become increasingly transparent ever since he took office in January. Trump is playing upon long-held prejudices towards African-Americans in sports, a presumption that “they’re lucky to be there” and that they don’t truly deserve the spoils of their toils.
While attacking Ball and by extension the three black UCLA players briefly held in a Chinese prison, Trump was keen to call them “ungrateful” a barely coded insult, which speaks volumes about the president’s psyche and sense of these athletes’ humanity.
It was just three years ago where former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling found himself driven out the NBA for griping that his predominately black players didn’t show him proper gratitude for his largesse.
Just four years before that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was widely condemned for a racially-tinged open letter he released after LeBron James’ infamous departure from his team. Many critics at the time felt Gilbert’s words reflected a slave owner mentality. And he has since performed many a mea culpa for them.
But not unlike how Trump so far has managed not to be held accountable amid the recent and sobering spate of sexual assault and harassment scandals, his degradation of black athletes as “sons of bitches” has been widely accepted.
Sure, several more NFL players took a knee during the national anthem earlier this season to rebuke him, and a number of commentators across the political spectrum have clutched their pearls and declared tweets like the ones directed at Ball and Lynch are beneath the office of the presidency.
That they are, but they are also part of the very pattern of racist behavior that got Donald Trump elected to the presidency in the first place.
Even some of his harshest critics have acknowledged that Trump has a knack for reading a room and knowing his audience. He wouldn’t be attacking black athletes if it wasn’t precisely what his fanbase was clamoring for.
Think of every interview with a diehard Trump supporter. What do they say in his defense? ‘He tells it like it is’ — which can also just as easily mean— ‘he says that things that people want to say but feel they can’t’.
Hatred, jealousy and resentment of black sports figures has always been a part of the American story, it’s just been tamped down in recent years by feel-good stories and fantasy fandom, but whenever a player speaks their mind, or in LeBron’s case, just acts in their own self interest, the gloves come off.
LaVar Ball is particularly interesting case. He is vilified, perhaps justly, as a shameless self promoter who treats his kids like brand commodities, who picks fights with people far above his pay grade in terms of talent and character, and who seems to think that any publicity is good publicity. Sound familiar?
Ball and Trump are really two peas in a pod, only one man’s privilege has provided him with a seat in the White House.
Adam Howard is an Associate Producer for the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee show, however, his opinions are his own.