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Saturday, November 18, 2017

November 18-19, 2017: Curry, LeBron, and Sports in the Age of Trump

[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to this weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On two NBA superstars and the evolving intersection of sports and politics.
As the NFL national anthem protests and their various responses have continued to unfold throughout this fall, one of the critiques I’ve seen raised most frequently is that these athletes are unnecessarily bringing politics into the sports world. On the one hand, as I hope pretty much all of the posts under my Sports tag here at the blog make clear (as do all of the great posts at the Sport in American History blog), that critique misses the ways that sports have always been connected to—indeed, interconnected with—politics, society, culture, and everything else in our nation and world. In that sense, Kaepernick and his peers have simply forced us to examine those interconnections, a process that clearly frustrates and angers many of our fellow Americans. Yet at the same time, while such ties between sports and politics have thus always been part of our culture, there seems to me to be no question that the overt and prominent interconnections between these realms have become more frequent and more pronounced in this evolving age of Trump. And the recent cases of two of—perhaps the two—biggest basketball superstars in the world exemplify this striking and complex trend.
Steph Curry’s purposeful engagement with Trump and the political realm is on the surface by far the more surprising of these two situations. As he has over the last few seasons become one of the NBA’s most prominent and popular stars—and the leader of a team that has dominated the league like few others over that period—Curry has done so in the mold of a young Magic Johnson: charismatic and charming, seemingly just as popular with opposing fanbases as with his own, an irresistible ambassador (along with his just-as-likable young family) for the league and sport. So for a player in that mold to take the step of expressing uncertainty about whether he would attend a White House ceremony celebrating his team’s championship—to, that is, not just intervene in a political conversation, but express a direct criticism of a political leader, risking alienating some portion of his fanbase among other potential effects—was a striking moment, even before Trump did his usual thing and escalated the situation on Twitter. While of course I agree with Curry’s perspective and stand, it’s also important just to note the significance of the moment itself, as a reflection of this new era in American sports and society.
One of the figures who responded most directly to Trump’s Twitter attack on Curry was LeBron James, whose Tweet in response to Trump remains one of the more incendiary (and popular) social media messages (in any context) offered by an athlete to date. On the one hand, LeBron’s response seems less surprising than Curry’s words, both because of LeBron’s history of activism and because he’s already such a polarizing (and frequently hated-upon) figure that he had a good deal less to lose in that sense that did Curry. Yet if we take a step back and compare LeBron to the basketball great with whom he is most often linked (including by himself), Michael Jordan, I would still argue that this moment is a striking and significant one. Jordan was far from likable, and indeed happy to be hated as much as loved; but he also steadfastly recused himself from the political realm, both for brand/endorsement reasons and (it seemed) because of how laser-focused he was on athletic success and dominance. LeBron has often seemed just as laser-focused throughout his hugely successful career to date, and of course has garnered quite a few endorsements of his own along the way. So for him to take on Trump so directly likewise reflects this new world of sports and society in which we find ourselves.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this complex topic, or other athletes you’d highlight?

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