Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.
I grew up in the 1960s loving the NBA. That devotion made me a member of a small, insignificant club in southern Ohio, where the Reds and Bengals reign supreme and basketball is embraced only at the amateur levels.
When I was a kid, my hometown team was the Cincinnati Royals, featuring stars such as Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas and, later, Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Tom Van Arsdale. I begged my dad to drive me to games 60 miles away at the old Cincinnati Gardens. He would oblige when he could. When I turned 16 in 1972 and could drive myself, the Royals left for Kansas City. (The franchise is now the Sacramento Kings.)
Naturally, I was drawn to the autobiographies of my NBA heroes. The writings of African American stars such as Robertson and Bill Russell on the racism they endured have greatly influenced my opinions on race, which tend to be more liberal than those of other conservatives, but not so liberal as to satisfy the far left.
I stuck with the NBA through the 1970s and early 1980s and the tape-delayed Finals games on CBS, staying up until 2 a.m. and getting up three hours later to go to work. I rejoiced with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the turnaround of the league’s fortunes under commissioner David Stern. I marveled at Michael Jordan, was awed by Shaquille O’Neal, celebrated LeBron James’s arrival in Cleveland, cursed his desertion to Miami, and embraced him when he returned and led the Cavaliers to that elusive title.
But in recent years, under Stern and now Adam Silver, the NBA has fully embraced the politics of the left. There seems to be no cause too liberal for corporate NBA, which emboldens the league’s players to follow suit and entangle their personal politics in league affairs. It is in that light that we digest the comments about President Trump by James and Stephen Curry after Trump’s withdrawal of a White House invitation for the champion Golden State Warriors.
James campaigned for Hillary Clinton, and a few days after Trump was elected, James was asked whether he would accept an invitation from Trump if the Cavs won another championship. He equivocated even then. “I don’t know,” said James. “That’s something that we’ll cross. We’ll have to cross that road if we get to it. We’ll see.”
After the Warriors won this year’s finals in June, Curry was asked about a White House visit. He replied, “Somebody asked me about it a couple months ago. . . . I think I answered that I wouldn’t go. I still feel like that today.”
So when Curry said Sept. 22 that he didn’t want to go, Trump finally just rescinded the invitation, which, comically, sent James over the edge with a tweet calling the president a “bum.” How dare Trump withdraw an invitation to someone who was treating it like an appointment for a root canal? A few days ago, James took a page from Clinton’s “deplorables” playbook and said that voters who supported Trump were “uneducated.”
In a political environment where Trump is regularly referred to as a racist under the newly expanded definition, athletes who treat Trump contemptuously have built-in media allies leaping to their defense. Likewise, Trump’s criticism of the disrespect shown to our veterans and our country by a growing number of NFL players during the national anthem is predictably met with accusations of racism.
What makes sports so popular in our culture? The answer is simple: It’s a couple of hours of escape from the real world during which people from all walks of life can forget about their troubles and cheer for a competition that, at the end of the day, is relatively meaningless.
Athletes, black or white, have every right to participate in politics and work for causes important to them on their own time. But when they bring their political statements onto the field of play or refuse an invitation to the White House, it destroys many fans’ connections to sports.
Sporting events themselves are meaningless. Russell, the greatest winner in team sports history, said so himself, remarking at the height of his career, “I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world.”
He was right. It is that very shallowness that gives sports their tremendous appeal. When athletes contaminate sporting events with politics, they extinguish the only thing that makes sports matter: their very irrelevancy. The real world hits us in the face every day. Sports are our escape, and if fans lose that benefit from the leagues they love, the leagues will lose their fans.