INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – LeBron James helped move the conversation forward Monday after the latest collision of sports and politics over the weekend.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star might have dragged it backward, too, in suggesting that people who voted for President Trump “made a mistake” or were “uneducated” in casting their ballots.
James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star as well as the NBA’s top performer and perhaps its most polarizing figure, was in a good mood, engaged and willing to entertain questions about anything, from anyone, in the most notable exchange at the Cavs’ media day.
That’s essentially what he got, too. James was savvy enough at the start of what became a 40-minute Q&A session to request that reporters clump their questions together by topic – and there were a good half dozen meaty ones hanging over him and his team after a tumultuous offseason – rather than skip randomly back and forth.
The Trump topic in particular ate up nearly half of his time on the platform, during which James shined a light and sharpened focus on an unwieldy issue that largely has been defined by and debated according to kneeling vs. standing, asserting one’s right to protest vs. respecting America and its flag, and most recently pushing back against or knuckling under to President Trump.
James was asked if he expected the NFL’s controversy over players’ sideline protests to draw attention to what they feel is racial discrimination in law enforcement, up to and including brutality involving lethal force, to trickle down to the NBA when the league’s 2017-18 regular season begins Oct. 17.
The four-time NBA MVP and three-time champion acknowledged it might. Then he said: “My voice is more important than my knee.”
Right there, James nudged the whole issue a bit.
“What I say, I think it should hit home for a lot of people that know where I stand,” he said. “I don’t believe I should have to get on my knee for me to even further what I’m talking about.”
James had waded back into the fray over the weekend. He criticized Trump via social media after the President withdrew an invitation to the White House to the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, singling out Stephen Curry for “hesitating.” He began a Tweet -- since "liked" nearly 1.5 million times, making it one of the most popular posts in the platform's history -- by addressing Trump as “U bum.”
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
“I didn’t name-call,” James said. “‘Bum.’ Me and my friends call each other that all the time.”
The Cavs star hasn’t been shy in sharing his feelings about Trump, driven in no small part by the Commander-in-Chief’s pettiness on social media and penchant for opining and criticizing on matters well short of the national interest.
“He doesn’t understand the power that he has, for being the leader of this beautiful country,” James said. “He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the President of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement. He doesn’t understand that.
“That’s what makes me more sick than anything. That we have someone – this is the No. 1 position in the world, you guys agree? – and we are at a time where the most powerful position in the world has an opportunity to bring us closer together as a people. And inspire the youth and put the youth at ease in saying ‘It is OK for me to walk down the street and not be judged because the color of my skin or because of my race.’ ... And he doesn’t even care.”
James at one point eloquently made a case for keeping politics out of sports.
“Sports is so amazing, what sports can do for everyone,” he said. “No matter the shape or size or race or ethnicity or religion or whatever. People find teams, people find players, people find colors because of sports – they just gravitate towards that and it just makes ‘em so happy. And it brings people together like none other.”
“We’re not gonna let ... one individual no matter the power, no matter the impact that he should have or she should have, ever use sports as a platform to divide us.”
Minutes later, though, James felt obliged to explain that kneeling during the national anthem is “not about disrespect of the flag and our military and everybody who has made this world free. It is about equality and people having the option, the freedom, to speak about things that they feel that’s not just.”
All of which – misimpressions or not – came about because sports got used for politics.
James said he would lend his voice, his passion, his money and his resources to causes, particularly involving young people. His foundation launched a school in his hometown of Akron for at-risk students, helping 1,300 students at a cost of nearly $45 million, James said Monday.
Where James veered into dicey territory was when he said: “No matter whether you voted for him or not, you may have made a mistake and that’s OK, if you voted for him. It’s OK. I’ve done things for my daughter and realized I shouldn’t have gave my daughter that many damn Skittles. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
The state in which James was born, lives and works – and the state in which the Cavaliers do business – was carried by Trump in the 2016 election. The current president took Ohio with 51 percent of the vote, compared to 43 who voted for Hillary Clinton, who had the benefit of James’ public endorsement.
Asked how he would reconcile the idea of his neighbors, presumably many Cavaliers fans, voting that way, James doubled down.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think a lot of people was educated,” he said. “And I think that’s one of the biggest problems that we have. When it becomes vote time, people are just not educated on either the individual or what’s going on in the state of the world right now. ... I don’t think a lot of people are educated and they make choices and say things that are uneducated.
“And am I saying that the people of Ohio wasn’t educated? Am I saying that some of the other states that voted for him was uneducated? They could have been or they could not have been. But that doesn’t mean it was the right choice.”
Chances are good, though, that many among the 2.8 million Ohioans who cast ballots for Trump had reasons they considered valid. Beyond a “mistake” or from being “uneducated.” It wasn’t as simple as second-guessing the 1984 Trail Blazers for drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, which James mentioned.
His remarks Monday, for curious reporters, bled into his relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who donated to Trump’s campaign and met with him at the White House earlier this year. Gilbert, who attended Media Day, even felt compelled to backpedal later in the afternoon, with the team’s front office releasing a statement to clarify the owner’s connections to Trump.
The statement mentioned Gilbert’s efforts, through his family of companies, to invest in and revitalize businesses in Cleveland and Detroit. It mentioned the more than 22,000 people they employed. It made clear that these initiatives began during the Obama administration and reached across the aisle in Congress, and reminded that Gilbert has written checks to both major political parties, sometimes in the same elections.
“Professional athletes, owners and the leagues themselves, as well as the country, would greatly benefit from an open, inclusive dialogue that would allow the expression of all views and concerns that have recently become hot topics in professional sports,” Gilbert’s statement read. “It is time to move on to positive resolutions and outcomes that begin with constructive and healthy conversations.”
Bottom line, it seemed as if Gilbert was hoping for a lifeline, caught in the crosshairs of what can best be characterized as: “Are you now or have you ever been a Trump supporter?”
Something about that phrasing, and its echoes of McCarthyism and a form of political oppression to which this enlightened nation never would return, seemed ironic, updated to this latest sweat- and eye black-tinged cause celebre over, er, freedom of speech. (Those who know him characterize Gilbert as agnostic about the 2016 election, for what it’s worth.)
Where Gilbert was right, and where James could meet him in using his voice instead of his knee and encouraging the same from his peers, is in taking steps toward those highly sought constructive conversations and positive resolutions.
The kneeling, from the beginning, was said to be about raising awareness. Between Tweeting at POTUS and Trump’s undisciplined rants and the numbers on NFL sidelines who joined in Sunday, it’s hard to imagine awareness having any ceiling left.
It’s time for whatever steps will get players off their knees and stop fans from claiming they’ll take their wallets and go home.
“Can we sit up here and say that, ‘I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I want the best for the American people?’” James said at poine point. “No matter the skin color, no matter the race, no matter how tall or athletic you are, whatever the case may be. ... Because we know this is the greatest country in the world. It’s the land of the free. But we still have problems just like everybody else.
“And when we have those problems, we have to figure out how we come together and be as great as we can as people. Because the people run this country, not one individual.”
That’s the thought to go with.
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