It was only a matter of time.
President Donald Trump used the NBA’s ongoing China controversy to attack two of his biggest critics in the sports world on Wednesday, calling out Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
Trump, taking questions from media in the White House’s Roosevelt room after signing an executive order on transparency in federal guidance and enforcement, brought up the two coaches while discussing relations with China.
He was asked about whether he thinks China is wrong to pressure the NBA over Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters in their conflict with China’s government.
He took the opportunity to immediately lay into Kerr.
‘He was like a little boy’
“I watch this guy Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy,” Trump said. “He was so scared to be even answering the question. He couldn’t answer the question, he was shaking. He didn’t know how to answer the question. He’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
He then set his sights on Popovich, but with a lighter touch.
“I watched Popovich, sort of the same thing,” Trump said. “But he didn’t look quite as scared, actually. But they talk badly about the United States. But when the talk’s about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad, actually.”
Trump defending himself, not United States
There is legitimate criticism to be had of Kerr, Popovich and the NBA for their collective response to the China controversy.
This is not it.
Trump is a frequent target of criticism of both Kerr and Popovich, who often speak freely on social and political issues. They criticize what they see wrong in the United States on the fronts of gun control and police brutality, two hot-button political topics germane to Trump’s presidency.
Trump here is framing their criticism of himself and policies he supports as talking about the United States “very badly.” It’s a common tactic among certain government leaders to frame lack of support for themselves as a lack of patriotism or love of country. Trump uses it frequently.
In reality, Kerr and Popovich speak out of a place of concern for the state of the United States, not a lack of support of it.
Trump reportedly promised China to keep silent
Meanwhile Trump, who reportedly promised Chinese President Xi Jinping silence on the Hong Kong issue, is painting them as un-American because of their hesitance to speak on the issue. And, of course, all of this is being discussed in the context of Trump defending himself and distracting from the impeachment inquiry against him.
Trump hammered the tactic home before moving on to answer other questions during his media conference.
“I watched the way that like Kerr, Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China,” Trump said. “And yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it. It’s like they don’t respect it. I said what a difference. Isn’t it sad?”
Kerr had no comment on China
Trump’s comments come in response to Kerr and Popovich’s recent public takes on the NBA’s China controversy.
Kerr, who — as previously stated — is rarely shy to speak his mind, chose a lengthy no comment on Monday when asked his thoughts on the complex topic dealing with human rights, government oppression and the NBA’s initial response that appeared to favor the league’s financial interests in China over those concerns and Morey’s freedom to speak freely.
“Actually I don’t,” Kerr said when asked if he has thoughts on the controversy. “It’s a really bizarre international story. A lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about like everybody is, but I’m not gonna comment further.”
Kerr is no stranger to the consequences of high-stakes international discord. His father Malcolm Kerr was shot and killed in 1983 in Beirut during a larger military conflict in Lebanon. He was the the president of the American University of Beirut.
Kerr was an 18-year-old freshman at Arizona at the time of his father’s assassination, an incident that has surely shaped his approach to discussing larger social issues at home and abroad.
Popovich praised Adam Silver for his response
Popovich spoke publicly on the issue for the first time Tuesday after NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement vowing not to regulate speech such as Morey’s.
Popovich’s response was limited to praising Silver’s progressive bonafides and his response regarding freedom of speech. He also took a swipe at Trump in the process, something the president surely took note of.
"He came out strongly for freedom of speech,” Popovich said. “I felt great again. He's been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous. Then you compare it to what we've had to live through the past three years, it's a big difference. A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise.”
The NBA finds itself in an enormous high-stakes bind, and the league’s thought leaders like Kerr and Popovich find themselves in precarious positions in how to respond publicly.
Is there room for legitimate criticism of their public statements? Absolutely.
What Trump did was not that.
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