Over the weekend the President of the United States of America took time out from his busy schedule of golfing and grifting to call LeBron James dumb on Twitter. Fortunately Donald Trump could do so without disruption to another important aspect of his job, watching cable news for hours, because he was reacting to something he saw James say on TV.
The president’s schoolyard taunt was in response to James saying Trump is using sports to divide the country. This obviously is true, and the critique is fair.
The president’s political style is to inflame the cultural wars, and sports are a prime target. Predictably, the NFL’s capitulation to the president’s authoritarian bullying only ensured that he will escalate it as he increasingly needs distractions from his administration’s latest legal issue or political failure.
Also predictable: the frenzied reaction to the president’s insult of James. People from across the sports world came out in strong defense of James. That is understandable, and in some ways satisfying, but the nature of many of those defenses is regrettable in the big picture.
James’ defenders noted that he is, in fact, smart. They pointed out that James is spending millions of dollars for a unique public grade school that opened last week in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. They noted that James is a family man while the president is, um, not. Even the First Lady praised James for his good works, even as she delivered another blow to irony by touting her initiative focusing on “the importance of responsible online behavior.”
Some critics naturally pointed out the racial implications of this president questioning the intelligence of a black man. This led to another round of debate about whether the president is a racist, which is beside the point. That framing implies that we should try to ascertain what is in the president’s heart, an impossible standard that derails the conversation.
More relevant are the president’s racially discriminatory rhetoric and policies, which are acknowledged by honest people. That includes the Klansmen, white nationalists and other assorted garbage people who approve of the president’s message and actions on matters of race.
I get why decent people denounced as racist the president’s insult of James. I understand why they defended James by contrasting his intelligence, positive contributions to society and moral character with an unethical clown figure. It’s difficult to stay silent when the purported leader of the free world is such an effective Twitter troll.
Still, those defenses are the wrong way to counter the president’s insults.
By defending James’ intelligence, his allies give credence to the notion that it is something that should legitimately be debated in the first place. Praising his morality and generosity in response to the president’s insults implies that there should be a debate about that, too.
Those are wins for the president and those among his followers who believe the humanity of certain groups of people should be questioned, that they must prove they are worthy of equality. And that’s a rigged game, anyway, because the president and his most loyal fans will always raise the bar for out-groups and lower it for themselves.
Additionally, the outrage over the president’s insults of James added fuel to the sense of grievance and victim hood that animate the president’s political and cultural movement. The right response came from James, who ignored the president’s barbs.
Instead of being goaded into an argument with a Twitter troll, James spent the weekend rejoicing over the new school in Akron. Rather than get down in the muck, James focused on his efforts to uplift others. By staying above the fray, James showed that he’s a better leader than the president. There is no need to defend him.
Until now, every president in my lifetime tried to use sports as a unifying force. (Whether it really is is another topic.) Those presidents didn’t attack athletes or other private citizens for criticizing them. They certainly didn’t use their bully pulpit to pressure sports leagues to punish players for their speech — then say those citizens should leave the country if they won’t shut up.
No doubt the famously think-skinned president was personally affronted by James’ criticism. But attacking James also furthered his goal of agitating divisions for what he believes will be political gain. James knows that, no matter the truth of his statement or lack of merit to the president’s insults, simply playing that game makes the president a winner.
James opted not to play. That was smart! He helped thwart the president’s ongoing efforts to make our country meaner and dumber. The rest of us should learn from it.
That’s not to say we should ignore the victims of the president’s cruel policies and dangerous rhetoric. On the contrary, disengaging from the president’s culture war allows for more oxygen to assess and address the real damage he’s causing.
The next time the president criticizes an athlete or sports league for daring to say something true that he doesn’t like, they should take a lesson from James and officials within the president’s administration: Shrug off the rantings of the Twitter troll and go about your business.