Unless you count pocket billiards as a sport, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not gifted in athletics.
For what he lacked in physical ability, however, Dr. King certainly made up for in his insights into the complex social and political power of sports as platforms of radical change and players as valuable instruments for expanding racial justice.
Donald Trump’s opinion of sports starkly contrasts Dr. King’s. In Trump’s view, clear winners and losers are chosen daily. For him, the losers comprise athletes who not only fall short on the scoreboard, but also Black athletes who choose to reinvigorate activism in their sport or who disagree with his politics.
Herein lies the difference in these two men’s interpretations of a collection of games with the same set of rules and balls: Dr. King saw the raw, unhinged power of athletes to effect change while Trump views sports as nothing more than events to further his individual goals and business endeavors.
A young Dr. King was inspired during the late 1940s by Jackie Robinson’s charismatic personality and nonviolent efforts to end racial segregation in professional baseball. On the other hand, Trump gained confidence (and probably pompousness) from his own natural ability when he earned a mention in a local newspaper while playing baseball in boarding school at the New York Military Academy.
“It was the first time I was ever in the newspaper. I thought it was amazing,” Trump later wrote.
Dr. King worked with Robinson to speak out for civil rights as “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Facing criticism for being “unpatriotic,” Dr. King also supported track athletes who argued that Black athletes should boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
“This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle. … No one looking at these demands can ignore the truth of them. Freedom always demands sacrifice and … consequently we’re going to stand up and make the sacrifices,” responded Dr. King.
Dr. King’s quote echoes the sentiments of the ongoing NFL protests in which players kneel during the national anthem to oppose police violence in America.
Instead of acknowledging the players’ grievances while disagreeing with their methods, Trump suggested that the movement’s originator, Colin Kaepernick, should leave the United States, crudely argued that a protesting player should be called “son of a bitch,” suggested firing the players and scapegoated racial tensions as the cause of decreasing NFL ratings.
While Dr. King found common ground with those with whom he disagreed, Trump views athletes as tools of submission in keeping a norm that oppresses minorities.
When Golden State Warrior Steph Curry told a reporter that he would not be visiting the White House, Trump responded by revoking Curry’s invitation. Additionally, in November, Trump not only publicly demanded that the three Black players caught shoplifting in China should thank him, but then later suggested leaving the three in prison after LaVar Ball, father of one of the athletes, dismissed Trump.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s racism is not limited to sports nor to Black athletes.
One of the few consistencies of this president has been his perpetual racism, from his comments about Hispanics and Muslims during the presidential race to the recent revelation of his preference for white immigrants from Norway over immigrants of color from “shithole countries” in Africa.
His recurrent and public attacks on high-profile Black athletes not only demonstrate his inability to constructively manage conflict, but are an insult to the advancement of civil rights for which Dr. King was murdered.
Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday sports column on the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]