Trump's most unlikely legacy – athletes no longer 'sticking to sports'

There are some who wish athletes would “stick to sports.” It’s a dubious concept, but one not lacking in support.

Here in the Age of Trump, however, particularly after the incidents and terrorism of Charlottesville, Virginia, the possibility that sports stars will begin to just shut up and play is all but gone.

Instead, with Trump, they are engaged, enraged, empowered and encouraged. Athletes not sticking to sports may prove to be one of the unlikely legacies of his presidency.

Consider Stephen Curry, who back in February spoke out against Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, a company that pays Curry millions of dollars to endorse its product. Plank had recently joined Donald Trump’s manufacturing council and deemed the President a “real asset” to the country.

“I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et,’ ” Curry told the Mercury News.

Curry went on to question why Under Armour would align itself with Trump in any way considering his stance on racial issues. He then pondered his own future with Under Armour.

LeBron James tweeted that President Trump has made hate fashionable again. (Getty)
LeBron James tweeted that President Trump has made hate fashionable again. (Getty)

Plank, despite being the boss, was on his heels. He noted he was praising Trump’s pro-business background and not his other political stances. “We engage in policy, not politics,” the company stated. A détente was reached.

It proved temporary. On Monday, Plank resigned from the manufacturing council in response to Trump blaming “both sides” in Charlottesville. In the end, no amount of “policy” could overcome the “politics” of Trump.

Which is what Curry was arguing all along. And will likely continue to argue.

Look, the stick-to-sports argument never made sense – even it if came with good intentions based on the idea that watching a game was supposed to be a haven from the real world.

If someone can only discuss subjects related to their profession, then political talk is left to whom … pundits and the unemployed? The people shouting at athletes to stick to sports don’t stick to only discussing their careers. A couple years back Trump was a businessman and reality TV star. He certainly didn’t stick to anything. He became president. That’s America.

As always, everyone in the country has the right to speak about whatever they want, just as everyone else has the right to view them, or their affiliated businesses, for better or worse because of it. There is freedom of expression in this country, but also a professional risk in speaking out. That’s just reality.

For a long time, players feared it. Now it’s clear athletes are more emboldened than ever. Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment, which is at least in part because of his political stances, has not chilled all discussion, certainly not from established players.

When it comes to taking on Trump, there is little backlash and a sense that staying silent is unacceptable. Everyone from Fortune 500 companies (IBM, General Motors) and Middle America brands (Campbell’s Soup) ran from him this week. He’s proven to be a big and easy target.

Michael Jordan reportedly once declined to endorse a democratic Senate candidate in his native North Carolina because “Republicans buy sneakers too,” a nod to his Nike deals.

Curry not only didn’t worry about angering customers, he didn’t care about calling out the guy cutting him his check.

On Tuesday, LeBron James spoke at an event for his foundation at an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. In reaction to Trump’s claim there were “some very fine people” involved with Klansman, white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, LeBron dubbed him the “so-called president.”

James had previously taken to his social media platforms, which are even more far-reaching than Trump’s, to declare, “Hate has always existed in America … but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again!”

Such broadside shots at a sitting president are almost unprecedented, especially for a signature star such as James. This is far beyond skipping a White House trip or endorsing a candidate.

Trump doesn’t scare Curry or LeBron, though. Some of the issues that are dragging down his presidency aren’t particularly complex. James wasn’t debating health-care regulations or trade deals or foreign affairs. Or even police conduct, which Kaepernick has championed.

This is about Charlottesville, where so many Americans have rejected Trump’s rationalization of white supremacists and their activities. It’s also about African-American men and fathers (although people of all races and religions are disgusted) feeling this as a direct attack on their families, communities and culture.

Michael Bennett chose not to stand for the national anthem in response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. (Courtesy @Dennis TFP)
Michael Bennett chose not to stand for the national anthem in response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. (Courtesy @Dennis TFP)

When the Seattle Seahawks Michael Bennett, the son of a Navy man with a history of outreach and charity to the military, sat for the first time during the playing of the national anthem Sunday, he said the motivation was clear.

Charlottesville was the tipping point for me,” Bennett said on CNN.

White supremacists aren’t coy with what they are trying to accomplish. Neither is the normalization of their once-nearly universally condemned movement. So LeBron James, standing an hour drive west of Toledo, home of the man who drove the car into the Charlottesville crowd, saw the issue as personal.

How couldn’t he?

He mocked Trump and then called for individuals to take charge in ways big and small.

“It’s about us,” James said. “It’s about us looking in the mirror. Kids all the way up to the adults. All of us looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What can we do better to help change?’ ”

If you were someone who hoped athletes would go quiet, you’re probably only going to hear more and more.

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