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The Black Donald Trump vs. the Racist in Chief

LaVar Ball and Donald Trump. (Screen shot / YouTube, Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Of all the African-American sports figures who drive Donald Trump nuts, none could annoy him more than LaVar Ball, a mirror image of the president, capable of matching him boast for boast.

Ball is the father of three top basketball-playing sons, one with the Los Angeles Lakers (Lonzo Ball), another a UCLA player jailed and released by the Chinese for shoplifting (LiAngelo Ball) and a third still at Chino Hills High School (LaMelo Ball), weighing college prospects and playing for the Amateur Athletic Union team that Ball coaches, the Big Baller Brand, which is also the name of Ball’s shoe company.

ESPN called LaVar Ball “the most entertaining showman in sports.” Or as Ball told the network, “The best coach ever. That’s how I describe myself. The best coach ever. Because I said so.”

He is also one of a long line of black athletes and coaches who have faced scorn from the largely white sports establishment of owners, executives and journalists for talking back to the big shots, often protesting social and law enforcement injustice.

The feud between Ball and Trump began when Ball’s son LiAngelo and two other UCLA players were arrested in China for shoplifting while the team was there to play Georgia Tech. The players were not allowed to leave the country. Initial reports said they faced up to 10 years in prison. Trump, in China at the same time, spoke with China’s President Xi Jinping about the case, and the players were allowed to return home to the United States.

 

When asked about Trump’s role in the release, Ball downplayed the incident and the president’s involvement, replying to ESPN, “Who? What was he over here [on the Asian trip] for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

Trump felt he deserved credit and lashed out at Ball for a lack of gratitude. He tweeted, “Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

Trump wasn’t done, taking to Twitter again. “It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence – IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think..,” Trump wrote. “…LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, himself no slouch at self-promotion, told TMZ Sports that Ball will come out of the feud a winner. “If LaVar doesn’t apologize, he’ll be in the news all day, every day, and the president will end up having to talk about him. What’s better for Big Baller Brand?”

Cuban is right.

Monday, Ball announced he is pulling his son out of UCLA, which had suspended him and the other players, and was back in the news.

On the surface, this is just a feud between two egomaniacs, although some might say it is a stretch to compare Trump’s power to start a nuclear war with Ball’s efforts to corner the shoe market.

But there is much more to this feud. It involves Trump’s hair-trigger temper, and his bad relationships with other black athletic figures—and his tirades against Muslims, Latino immigrants and Native Americans. The common denominator among the Trump targets is dark skin.

Many mainstream news analysts and journalists excuse Trump by saying he is cleverly appealing to his base of working-class whites. But instead of making excuses for him, let’s be honest: Trump is a racist, and his attitude permeates his administration.

The contemptuous words he uses when referring to minorities of color are evidence of that. “Ungrateful fool” is how he referred to Ball. A powerful example of his racism is his attitude toward the African-American athletes who refused to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in protest against police assaults on blacks: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”

When Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders stood during the Mexican national anthem and sat during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a game in Mexico City on Nov. 19, Trump called for his suspension.

“Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our National Anthem. Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down,” he tweeted.

What is it about black athletes, a majority in the NFL and the NBA, that drives Trump nuts?

A lot of them are rich, a quality he seems to respect more than any other. But they’ve earned their money by their own accomplishments. They don’t owe him anything. They don’t have to bow and scrape before him. As LaVar Ball told Rolling Stone, “I have my own opinion, I can say what the hell I want, I don’t answer to nobody.”

This attitude is rooted in history. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in Major League Baseball, was a tough and persistent critic of President Kennedy for his hesitancy on civil rights. U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners respectively, raised black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Muhammad Ali was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He was kicked out of boxing for three years at the peak of his skills, giving up big purses. The Supreme Court upheld his CO status, and Ali resumed his career.

Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently of the San Francisco 49ers, sat on the sidelines during the playing of the national anthem. He was protesting inequality and how the United States “oppresses black people and people of color.” Only a few of the white players, who are a minority in the NFL, joined the protest.

“To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” said Kaepernick, who now can’t get a job even though lesser quarterbacks have been signed. “There are bodies in the street, and people (police) getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick was given the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award “for his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost.”

LeBron James, probably the National Basketball Association’s best player, told reporters during a Cleveland Cavaliers media day, “The people run this country, not one individual—and damn sure not him [Trump]. As I have this platform and I have a way to inspire … I will lend my voice, I will lend my passion and my money, I will lend my resources to my youth and my inner city and outside of my inner city to let these kids know that there is hope, there’s greater walks of life, and not one individual, no matter if it’s the president of the United States or if it’s someone in your household, can stop your dreams from becoming reality.”

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said African-American players are protesting racism and racially motivated police brutality.

“Protesting injustice,” Morial said, “has been a tradition for black athletes from Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James. It’s their right as Americans, and it’s distressing to see the commander in chief vilifying anyone for exercising the constitutional rights that he is sworn to uphold.”

Trump’s racial attitudes have spread through his administration, singling out Muslims and Latinos. Recently, he retweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos from a British far-right source. The videos, posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right and ultra-nationalist political group, depict purported Muslims assaulting people and, in one video, smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary. When questions arose about the videos’ authenticity, Trump’s spokesperson said it didn’t matter, that the president’s goal was focusing attention on the border.

I’ve seen this attitude reflected by the immigration cops who round up in increasing numbers the Latino immigrants characterized by Trump as dangerous criminals. Whenever a dark-skinned motorist is stopped for a defective headlight or day laborers are questioned where they gather for jobs, I think it’s fair to say the attitude comes from the top.

That’s why sports deserve a prominent place in a discussion of Trump’s racial attitudes. Sports are more than games. They have revealed a president driven mad by black stars. Their success in life is a constant repudiation of the racism of Donald Trump.

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

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