Professional Athletes Need a Coherent Strategy to Isolate Trump

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Oakland Raiders players, including offensive tackle Vadal Alexander, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, offensive guard Gabe Jackson, and Oakland Raiders offensive guard Jon Feliciano, sit on the bench and stare straight ahead as the national anthem is sung prior to the game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

It was good to see so many NFL players refusing to be intimidated by Trump’s childish bullying. But there was method to Trump’s madness.

Trump is doubling down on his strategy of racializing grievances, on the premise that there are more whites in America than there are blacks. It’s also the case that most Americans love their flag, their national anthem, and even the rather corny Pledge of Allegiance. They also love the ritual of pre-game celebrations of these national symbols. (When I was a kid, I briefly thought that the last words of the “Star Spangled Banner” were, “Play ball.”)

Therefore, the various players associations and unions need a common strategy that rejects Trump, but does not reject these cherished symbols and rituals. Linking arms in solidarity comes pretty close. Staying in the locker room plays into Trump’s hands.

It would be great if the all of professional leagues, beginning with the NFL, could come up with a common ritual that communicated the idea that we are rejecting Trump’s divisiveness but not the symbols of patriotism that belong to all of us and not to Trump. As LeBron James observed, the White House was a great place before he got there.

Likewise the flag and the “Star Spangled Banner”—and they are still to be cherished. Trump doesn’t get to appropriate them—or to suggest that the protests are about disparaging America. They are about disparaging Trump’s hatefulness and the still-fierce racism that Trump stirs up.

Trump still seems to think he can govern by decree. He understands neither the First Amendment nor the American free enterprise system where presidents don’t get to tell corporate executives or professional athletes what to do.

He also seems to be a fool in whom he keeps picking fights with. It’s bad enough to get into a playground insult contest with the one world leader who is even crazier than Trump—Kim Jong-Un. But he topped even that by getting into a fight with LeBron James.

Both Kim and James got the better of our Dear Leader. Kim called Trump mentally deranged—it takes one to know one—and quipped that “a frightened dog barks louder.” Kim’s best line, or maybe his translator’s, was calling Trump a “dotard,” which sent editors scurrying for their dictionaries. The word means “a person in a state of senile decay marked by a decline of mental pose and alertness.” That about says it—and is much more elegant than Trump’s goofy epithet, “Rocket man.”

Trump even made NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell look good—and that takes some doing. Goodell defended his players, and put out a statement calling Trump divisive. James, perhaps the world’s most revered professional athlete, called Trump a bum. Even long-time Trump backer Tom Brady criticized the president's comments, calling them “just divisive.”

Trump’s targets are far better at epithets than he is. But that’s a losing game.

Maybe Trump is crazy like a fox. A lot of the fans of the NFL and the NBA are part of Trump’s base, and it just happens that the athletes he is attacking for disrespecting the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance are black.

While most Americans are appalled, this kind of talk shores up his support with his white nationalist base. That’s why professional athletes need to come up with a more precise way of rejecting Trump while insisting that the flag, the anthem, and the pledge belong to all of us.

Trump is a would-be Great Dictator. But if you go back and compare Trump’s tin-pot fascism with the real thing, there is one big difference. Both Hitler and Mussolini quickly moved to stamp out all parliamentary and civic opposition, so that they could govern by decree.

Trump has been unable to do that. His party holds a nominal majority in both houses of Congress but even the Republicans can’t manage to deliver for him. The courts recognize his executive authority, but only up to a point.

As for big business, whenever Trump crosses a line into outright racism, business leaders are quick to desert him. In August, after Trump’s comments about events at Charlottesville, so many top business leaders quit Trump’s two business advisory councils in protest that Trump had to disband them.

Shutting down the councils after top CEOs quit was a bit like rescinding invitations to the White House after professional athletes refused to come.

It’s encouraging that our constitutional institutions are withstanding Trump’s assaults and that the occasional business leader tells him to take a hike. The health insurance industry has come out strongly against his efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

I’d feel even better, however, if big business was not also playing footsie with Trump over his plans for big cuts in corporate taxes and his efforts to gut health, safety, environmental, labor and financial regulation. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

It’s great when business leaders draw the line at crude racism. Blocking Trump’s other assaults on a decent society will take a progressive movement.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here.

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