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Trump pokes at black players in the NFL and NBA – and many poke back

The president’s comments may have galvanized support in both leagues to take protests to a higher level

If President Donald Trump’s intention was to unite many players in the NFL as well as some of the biggest stars in the NBA in a tweet storm of public protest against him, he definitely succeeded.

After Trump blasted NFL players at a political rally Sept. 22 in Huntsville, Alabama, for kneeling during the national anthem to raise awareness of racial inequalities, the pushback was fierce from all corners of the two immensely popular sports leagues.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of his generation and possibly the most famous athlete in the world, called Trump a “bum” for a Saturday morning tweet directed at Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. On Sept. 22, Curry said he didn’t want to participate in the traditional White House visit that championship teams of professional sports leagues make annually.

On social media, other NBA stars followed James’ lead, blasting the person who occupies the nation’s highest office.

All-Star point guard Chris Paul suggested Trump isn’t “man enough to call any of those players a son of a b—- to their face,” alluding to Trump encouraging owners to cut ties with NFL players who participate in national anthem protests. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now,’ ” Trump said at the rally. “Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!”

From the NFL, Seattle Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman wrote that “the behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.” Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, a consistently thoughtful commentator on race relations, observed that the president sought to “disregard and punish American citizens for peacefully exercising their constitutional rights.”

The NFL is almost 70 percent black. The NBA is more than 74 percent black. Trump’s statements poked some of the most celebrated black men in the country and they poked back. And Trump’s supporters want him to continue to rail against black NFL and NBA players who offend them by taking a knee and pushing for change, said USC law professor Jody David Armour.

Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, said Trump and his supporters view former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first player to protest during the anthem, and other players involved with the struggle as just “whiny black millionaires who shouldn’t be disrespecting the flag of the country that made it possible for them to be millionaires. They shouldn’t be whining about something that doesn’t even affect them. … He knows that he has a huge constituency out there that feels the same. That’s who Trump is speaking to – and they hear him loud and clear.”

The fact that Trump apparently reveled in going after NFL and NBA players – he doubled down on his comments at the rally, tweeting Saturday that “if a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country) – while also at various times showing reluctance to use such forceful language to describe the protests of white supremacists – was not lost on players or civil rights leaders.

In targeting NFL and NBA players on a national stage, Trump just might have galvanized support in both leagues to take their protests to a higher level, said many on the front lines of the fight for justice.

“He declared war [on black America] a long time ago. This is not new,” civil rights activist DeRay McKesson said. “If nothing, he’s been consistent. But it’s important that Steph [Curry] and LeBron have both come out and talked about the danger and damage of this presidency in their own ways.

“Hopefully, what they did will provide an opening for other athletes. It could create space for other athletes. Hopefully, whether that’s in the NBA or NFL, it will open it up for other athletes to do so. The question in this moment is what will it take. What will it take for more players to take a knee? What will it take?”

In Buffalo, New York, and across the NFL, Trump’s comments inspired a call to action.

Last season, the Buffalo Bills were not among the teams whose players publicly participated in anthem protests. As Kaepernick ignited the movement by first sitting and then kneeling to shine a light on the disproportionately negative experiences people of color have with law enforcement, the Bills continued to toe the line.

Through the first two games of this season, the Bills stayed in that space (offensive lineman Cameron Jefferson raised his fist during the anthem while with the team during the preseason). Late Saturday night, though, winds of change could be felt in Western New York.

Bills players met to discuss Trump’s comments and how the team would respond Sunday before they played host to the Denver Broncos at Orchard Park, New York. The Bills, like the rest of the NFL and NBA with regard to Trump’s words, had a lot to unpack, Buffalo Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said.

“I supported the guys that are kneeling or raising their fist during the national anthem,” Alexander said. “I hadn’t decided to do it because it wasn’t my thing; I didn’t feel I needed to do that to make a difference.

“But what [Trump] said makes me almost want to stand with those guys and protest because of the rhetoric he’s using. First, being disrespectful to those guys’ mothers. Then drawing such a hard line against players trying to stand for social injustice when you have the KKK and white supremacists killing folks.”

Alexander was one of at least 11 Bills players who kneeled during the national anthem Sunday, ESPN.com’s Mike Rodak reported.

Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula released a statement Saturday: “Several of us met tonight – players, coaches, staff and ownership. Our goal was to provide open dialogue and communication. We listened to one another. We believe it’s the best way to work through any issues we are facing – on and off the field.

“President Trump’s remarks were divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community, but we tried to use them as an opportunity to further unify our team and our organization.

“Our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to provide and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality.”

In the moments immediately after Trump made his explosive comments, offended players hurriedly texted teammates and players on other teams across the NFL. The anger among many players is palpable, and “no one knows what’s going to happen” in terms of protests, said the coach, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “But with everything that’s out there, you get the sense you could see” demonstrations on a much bigger level. “He’s pissed a lot of people off.”

Activist Stephen A. Green, president of The People’s Consortium, a civil rights group committed to nonviolent change, said players should channel their frustration toward making the movement even more powerful.

“Trump has a bull’s-eye on black America through our sports athletes. We’re seeing fascism at its finest,” Green said. “We’re seeing that this president is taking any means necessary to humiliate those who are willing to take a stand for issues that are important to the black community. So athletes can use their platforms to show they won’t be intimidated. They can show that this only makes them stronger together.”

Liner Notes

Senior Writer Mike Wise contributed to this story.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.