The sports world has given a disturbing amount of space to the citrus-faced presidential aspirant Donald Trump during this election season. They legitimize him by breathlessly reporting the love showered upon him by the likes of Tom Brady, Mike Tyson, Mike Ditka, and Dennis Rodman. He has been endorsed by NASCAR chief executive Brian France, who cracked down on the Confederate flag at races, yet has no compunction about raising Trump’s profile with glowing quotes. He has also been granted high-profile, softball interviews with sports radio hosts like Colin Cowherd, where Trump gets to say things like, “We need very strong people because our country is being taken away like candy from a baby…. We need the Tom Brady of negotiators!” while the host smiles blankly. But now the Trump-love, and the ideas he inspires, is traveling into the stands, and this creates a different dynamic: one marked by racism, harassment, and the potential for violence.
In the Midwest, in two instances that we know about, high school basketball teams with Latino players have been denigrated by white fans and students from opposing teams with the chant “Trump.” Perry, Iowa, is a town of just 8,000 people. Built around a Tyson Foods plant, it has a population that is 35 percent Latino. Forty-eight percent of the students at the local high school, according to principal Dan Marburger, are people of color. “We are really more of an urban school in a rural setting,” is how Marburger put it. He said it with pride, because the school has been able to make an integrated setting work in a very monochromatic part of the country. The Perry basketball team has Latino, white, black, and Native American players and stands as a proud symbol of how they are able to function as a community.
At a recent game between Perry and a rival team from Dallas Center-Grimes high school, opposing fans chanted “Trump” and racial slurs, and threatened to build a wall and kick the Perry players out of the country. After the incident, Perry student Kevin Lopez told reporters, “We are all aware of racism; it’s alive and well in small portions, but it’s alive and well, and it’s just hurtful to see that’s what they resort to.” By the way, Perry won that game 57–50.
That was a public school matchup. In Merrillville, Indiana, two Catholic schools—both part of the Gary, Indiana, Diocese—Bishop Noll and Andrean, faced off. The Bishop Noll team is majority Latino and had to face a large Donald Trump head being held up in the Andrean student section. Andrean students, according to numerous reports, also chanted “Build a wall!” and “Speak English!”
Ashley Hammond, whose cousin plays for Bishop Noll, claimed that the Andrean administration did nothing about the students’ behavior. She later wrote in a Facebook post, “What kind of administration allows its students to support HATE SPEECH and RACISM openly at a school sponsored event…a Catholic school at that?… Is the bible really the backbone of your Catholic school when you allow more than unsportsmanlike behavior, you allow your students to taunt with racism?” Again in this case, the racist side lost, 56–52.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has already shown us that things we may think only happen in other countries—namely white supremacist and nationalist violence attached to the leading political figure of a major party—are starting to happen here. In Europe, we’ve seen political support of violent nationalism find a natural home in the stands at sporting events. For decades, fan “hooliganism” has been organized into sporting brownshirts: shock troops for fanatic-fascism. In extreme examples, racist fan clubs have become something even more consequential than run-of-the-mill thuggery. During the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, Serbian fan clubs, most infamously the Red Star Club, quite seamlessly became death squads for nationalist leaders. Today the fan club for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club in Israel has been spotlighted on ESPN for its violent actions against Arabs that have invited comparisons to a lynch mob.
This is what makes it so deeply disturbing to see the hate-heatwave of Trump find make its way into the sports world. On a typical day in the sports stands of this country, people are assaulted and stabbed. This violence is tragic, but as incidents, they are isolated. A Trump-inspired act of violence, which seems like merely a matter of time, holds the potential to trigger more. Powerful people in sports and sports media have helped to legitimize this man. Now kids who just wanted to play basketball find themselves involuntarily on the front lines.