NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich have been consistent critics of the president over the past few years. They have never hesitated to call Trump a racist, a bigot or a “soulless coward.” But until now, Trump hasn’t returned oratorical fire. When it comes to using sports as a tool of political division and scapegoating, Trump typically reserves his childish insults for women and black people.
That changed on Wednesday. When asked about the tensions between the NBA and China, Trump took it as an opportunity to mock Steve Kerr. He threw mud at the Warriors coach over the way a visibly uncomfortable Kerr deflected questions about the league’s relationship with its most lucrative business partner. Trump said, “He couldn’t answer the question—he was shaking, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.’ He didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
Trump then attacked Popovich as well, saying, “I watched Popovich—sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually. But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad, actually.”
Trump is, if it even needs to be said, a rapidly deteriorating narcissist who is conflating their criticism of his nightmarish presidency with a criticism of the United States. There is no record of either coach “talking badly” about the US, just about its president. But for this wannabe autocrat, “l’État, c’est moi.”
Whatever one thinks about how Kerr and Popovich responded to questions about China, we should be perfectly clear: When it comes to the Hong Kong protests, Donald Trump has no room to criticize anybody. He has been silent on the violence in the Hong Kong streets, and, as has been reported, may have sold that silence to Chinese President Xie in return for dirt on Democrats.
In this case, true to form, Trump first attacked Kerr and Popovich for their comments and then proceeded to not say anything. He was in effect blasting them for not having the courage to do more than mimic his own silence. He fears upsetting China as much as the NBA does.
This is very instructive. What has emerged over the last week is that an entire sector of our government is willing to use the NBA for convenient China-bashing, when they have said next to nothing about Hong Kong in the preceding months. In addition, these political and ideological hacks—from Senator Ted Cruz to New York Times columnist Bari Weiss—keep their lips welded shut about current democratic struggles from Ecuador to the Middle East because these countries aren’t branded as enemies of the mercenary foreign policy interests of the United States.
Those now criticizing the league for removing people from arenas for holding “Free Hong Kong” signs had nothing to say when fans were expelled in 2014 for “Free Palestine” signs during exhibition games against Israeli teams, in the aftermath of the Israel bombings of Gaza. The people shocked that the NBA would not be an avatar of free expression never noticed when players like Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were shown the door for being too outspoken.
The NBA is what it is: a multinational, global corporation. But our political system is showing itself to share those kinds of autocratic, profit-first corporate values. We have reached a bizarre place where we are asking more from our basketball coaches and sports leagues than from our political leaders themselves. They are deflecting from their own cowardice and using the NBA as a useful foil while doing nothing.
No one has bathed themselves in glory over the last week. But we should distinguish between those who stand with the people of Hong Kong and those who talk tough on China only when it makes for a convenient tweet. Principled opposition to China’s autocratic actions requires real solidarity. It won’t come from those whose financial interests are hopelessly enmeshed with the Chinese state, which is why it not only won’t come from the NBA; it also won’t come from the ruling parties of the United States.