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Thursday, January 30, 2020

January 30, 2020: Sports and Politics: Curry, LeBron, and Trump

[If it’s Super Bowl week, it’s time for another SportsStudying series! This time on the fraught and contested, and not the slightest bit new, intersections between sports and politics. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the week’s posts or any related issues!]
On two NBA superstars and the evolving intersection of sports and politics.
As the NFL national anthem protests and their various responses have unfolded over the last few years, 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 high-profile 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 handful of 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.
Last sporting post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports and politics intersections you’d highlight?

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