Whenever a professional athlete tweets or does anything that can even be perceived as a political statement, a common refrain rings out in their notifications.
“Stick to sports,” cry out the egg avatars in unison, but President Donald Trump’s recent tiffs with the NBA and NFL have further emphasized that if politicians aren’t going to stick to politics, athletes should be free to talk about more than their day jobs as well.
It started Thursday at a campaign rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange when Trump fired a shot across the bow of NFL players — most notably free agent Colin Kaepernick — kneeling during the National Anthem before games to protest inequality.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired’?” Trump asked the crowd. “Some owner is going to do that. Some guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired … For a week, (that owner will) be the most popular person in this country because that’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
Then, after two-time NBA MVP and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said he would vote that the team decline any invitation to the White House to celebrate their 2017 championship, Trump made it clear no such invitation would be coming.
Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
The NBA community was quick to react, with Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James calling Trump a “bum” on Twitter and retired Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tweeting that “a #POTUS whose name alone creates division and anger” and “whose words inspire dissension and hatred can’t possibly ‘Make America Great Again.’”
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
A #POTUS whose name alone creates division and anger. Whose words inspire dissension and hatred can't possibly "Make America Great Again"
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) September 23, 2017
The top reply to Bryant’s tweet was telling him to “stick to basketball.” The first reply to James’ was correcting his grammar, followed by a tweet comparing those participating in the Black Lives Matter movement to looters and murderers.
Responses like those are the reason athletes can’t be silent on these issues. Both leagues are predominantly made up of African-Americans, and Trump’s words minimizing the way the struggles of those communities give them as much of a right as anyone to speak up about societal injustice.
This is bigger than sports, and athletes have First Amendment rights to speak up for what they believe in just as much as anyone else, especially because their words and actions have more potential to make a difference when it comes to getting people talking about the issues facing the country.
When Trump insinuates that athletes not wanting to stand for the anthem should be fired, or that Curry and his teammates shouldn’t be welcome at the White House because he disagrees with Trump’s beliefs, he is attacking freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate one’s beliefs, a core tenet of the American values he claims to be respecting.
Some people may not want politics in their sports because athletics are supposed to be an escape from everyday life, but at no other job in America is anyone expected to only have thoughts about the place that employs them. Construction workers aren’t told to “stick to building things” when they express an opinion on politics on Facebook.
Athletes are humans with real thoughts and feelings just like anyone else, and they are just as allowed to express them as any other person in America. Because if Trump thinks people should only be allowed to talk about what they do for work and nothing outside of it, he would’ve had to stick to being a failed businessman and pseudo-reality TV star instead of campaigning for president.