Another day, another set of sports- and race-related controversies sparked by President Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
Trump fired off a series of tweets Wednesday morning aimed at both the NFL as well as basketball dad LaVar Ball, Trump’s current opponent in a feud over the president’s involvement in getting a trio of college basketball players released from detention in China last week. During a CNN interview on Monday, Ball again downplayed the president’s role in the matter. “Did he help the boys get out? I don't know,” Ball said. “If I was going to thank somebody I'd probably thank President Xi (Jinping).”
More than 24 hours later, Trump issued his response. “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,” he wrote in one tweet.
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..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
...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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
This all started two weeks ago when Ball’s son, UCLA freshman player LiAngelo Ball, was arrested in China on suspicion of shoplifting from a luxury mall with two of his teammates. Last week, the three were released from custody reportedly after Trump had brought up their arrest during conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to the New York Times.
After Trump sent a tweet implying that the young men weren’t grateful for their release and had failed to thank him promptly, the players thanked him publicly and apologized for their actions, a move that in any other situation would have ended an already messy political drama, especially after Trump accepted their apology.
But when LaVar Ball was asked by ESPN if he had any words of thanks for Trump, the Ball family patriarch took a different approach, saying that Trump’s role in getting his son out of prison wasn’t as big as the president’s staff had suggested.
That was all it took for Trump to come out swinging in a pair of tweets on Sunday, writing that Ball was ungrateful for the president’s assistance and that he should have left the basketball players in jail. The entire thing felt like a weird sideshow; as Vox’s Yochi Dreazen notes, Ball is “basketball’s most famous stage dad,” and is almost as good as Trump when it comes to making a statement that will get people talking.
Trump, clearly not satisfied with one Twitter controversy, had already kicked off another on Monday morning when he tweeted about NFL player Marshawn Lynch’s decision to sit during the US national anthem. It wasn’t a new development; Lynch has been sitting during the anthem for most of football season as part of NFL players’ ongoing protest against police violence and the systemic injustices facing people of color in the US.
But when Lynch was seen standing during the Mexican national anthem (his Oakland Raiders were playing the New England Patriots in Mexico City) he drew Trump’s ire. By Wednesday morning, Trump had reverted to complaining about NFL protesters more generally, saying that the protests were “killing” the league and criticizing a plan, first reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday, that might see NFL players stay in the locker room during the national anthem next season.
The NFL is now thinking about a new idea - keeping teams in the Locker Room during the National Anthem next season. That’s almost as bad as kneeling! When will the highly paid Commissioner finally get tough and smart? This issue is killing your league!.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
Even before Wednesday morning, Trump’s blows to Lynch and Ball fit into an ongoing pattern of the president’s use of sports and the behavior of athletes of color as a battlefield for a culture war waged on behalf of his supporters. In Trump’s envisioning, black athletes are showing contempt for the country through displays of blatant disrespect and lack of explicit gratitude, a framing that his critics have called out for being little more than a thinly veiled racial dog whistle, one that is rooted in Trump’s troubled history on racial issues.
The image of Trump as a racist is one that has, in one form or another, followed him for years, and it is one that his supporters are eager to dismantle. In fact, prior to Trump’s back-and-forth with Ball, the UCLA incident was framed in some conservative media circles as proof that the president wasn’t racist. Instead, that incident and the following tweets about Lynch and the NFL were yet another reminder that Trump spends a lot of time sending implicit and explicit messages about the patriotism of black athletes.
Conservative media argued the UCLA incident was proof that Trump wasn’t racist. Trump’s continued tweeting made it hard for that argument to stick.
As Trump demanded a public thanks for assisting American citizens in political trouble abroad, a handful of conservative media outlets argued that by organizing the release of a group of black athletes, Trump was clearly not a racist.
The Daily Caller, for example, noted on November 14 that ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who was criticized by conservatives and the White House earlier this year after calling Trump a white supremacist on Twitter, had failed to give Trump credit for helping the UCLA players. “It’s pretty strange that Trump, who Hill fundamentally believes is a racist, would work so hard to free three young black men from spending years in a Chinese prison if Hill’s accusations against the president hold true,” David Hookstead wrote for the Caller.
A different article written by Hookstead shortly before LaVar Ball’s comments argued that the UCLA incident was also a chance for Ball to join the ranks of Trump’s prominent supporters of color. (Hookstead changed course by Sunday, writing that the feud between Trump and Ball was going to be “incredible.”)
Newsbusters, a website that uses the phrase “Exposing & Combatting Liberal Media Bias” as its tagline, wrote, “President Donald Trump, who as you've heard, is a ‘white supremacist,’ went to bat for three Black UCLA basketball players detained in China for shoplifting.” Similar messages arguing that Trump’s actions invalidated previous accusations of racism and the president’s own behavior appeared on Twitter.
The arguments differ slightly, but the intent here is pretty clear: A racist wouldn’t lift a finger to aid a black person under any circumstance, and by supporting three black men accused of a crime, Trump has clearly proven that he is not a racist. It’s an argument that seeks to reframe Trump’s long-held image when it comes to racial matters, especially in the wake of his controversial and unprompted statements on the NFL protests. It’s also an easy way to rebut news outlets that saw Trump’s initial tweets about the ungratefulness of the UCLA players as being racially coded — after all, if he helped them and was thanked for it, how could racism actually be in play?
But by responding to LaVar Ball, whose thanks were even less relevant than those of the players at the center of the controversy, Trump reignited this issue and further proved that he is unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie, particularly on his favorite topic: sports and the culture wars. And 2017 has been a busy year for Trump when it comes to starting fights about sports.
Trump’s attacks on Ball and the NFL stem from different places, but get delivered in the same way
For months Trump has criticized NFL player Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to sit during the national anthem before games last year sparked continued protests against the treatment of minorities by police and the broader justice system. Trump escalated things this fall when he called for Kaepernick and other participants in the NFL protest to be fired, which led to increased attention to the protests.
When NBA player Steph Curry said in September that he would vote against going to the White House should his championship team be invited, Trump had a strong reaction to that too, tweeting that a White House visit “is considered a great honor” and that the Golden State Warriors were no longer invited to visit the White House. The attacks didn’t stop there, Trump has also gone after ESPN’s Jemele Hill (who criticized him directly), and his comments about Curry and the NFL have prompted other black athletes to speak out against the president in recent months.
Agitating around the culture wars is something Trump seems to be incredibly comfortable doing. He repeatedly turns to cultural issues when he suffers setbacks on political issues or is under pressure. (One theory right now is that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is causing the president stress.) And he’s landed on sports as an easy place to make his stand as a defender of “traditional” values.
But another part of the problem is that Trump often fails to distinguish between what he feels he is owed as a person and what he is actually owed as president. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained shortly after Trump criticized the protesting NFL players and Curry this year, the president “puts a high premium on matters that affect him personally.” This in turn, leads Trump to believe that an offense to him is equal to an offense to the country, and causes him to wield the force of the presidency against private citizens.
This happened in the past with his reactions to Curry and Jemele Hill. We’re seeing this with his UCLA tweets as well. In one tweet Trump makes clear that thanks should not go to the White House or the State Department, but to him directly, and that by failing to give him this thanks, LaVar Ball is being “ungrateful.” It’s petty, but because Trump feels slighted, all of America should too.
The NFL attacks come from an opposite place, one where Trump perceives himself as the best defender of American patriotism, using his position to call out athletes unwilling to show respect to the country that made them millionaires. But Trump uses the same language in both attacks, making his personal critiques sound just as heated as his cultural ones. Over time, these attacks become indistinguishable. It’s an exhausting cycle, one that even Trump’s supporters may be getting tired of. But it is clear that the president reflexively turns to these issues, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.