If the Golden State Warriors want to make a truly radical statement for the times, they could show up at the White House and civilly disagree with the man who inhabits it. The Warriors have some careful thinking to do, both individually and collectively, about how they will respond to the inevitable invitation to meet the president. They should consider their answer in light of the fact that it’s becoming a revolutionary act to shake hands with someone you politically oppose.
One of the more common accommodations we make in American life revolves around playgrounds. When it comes to a scrubby baseball diamond in a public park we agree to suspend the hounding fury of political discourse to share the grass. That was violated on Wednesday morning when a man who apparently believed “Donald Trump is a traitor” shot at a bunch of Republican lawmakers practicing for an annual charity ballgame. Congressmen and legislative aides had to dive for cover in the dugouts. This is where we are.
It’s too early to know much about John T. Hodgkinson or his motives in the shooting. All we can be fairly sure of is that a freezing rage so distorted his perceptions that he fired on his fellow citizens as if they were paper targets. Few things are more nakedly defenseless than a baseball outfielder standing alone on a field. Yet Hodgkinson aimed and pulled the trigger anyway. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) caught a bullet in the hip and left a trail of blood in the grass. This is where we are.
It’s in this context that the Warriors will decide whether to accept the invitation to the White House. There have been reports they will decline. NBAers have been conspicuously anti- Trump: LeBron James campaigned for Hillary Clinton, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr have been powerful public critics, and three different teams canceled reservations at Trump hotels. The question before them is whether a team boycott would be a useful act of conscience, or just a gratifying snipe that adds to the current toxicity.
“Collective action” such as athlete boycotts are great for challenging majoritarian power, says John Inazu, a professor of law, religion and political science at Washington University in St Louis. But they are not great for dialogue. “When it comes to political disagreement, the decision of when to pursue dialogue and when to boycott (and therefore to forgo dialogue) is one of the most difficult to navigate,” he says.
It’s only with hesitation that I suggest the time is wrong for such a boycott. The NBA has a rich history of athlete-activists. Bill Russell marched for civil rights, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar boycotted the 1968 Mexico City Olympics over racism, in the face of calls to bar him from the NBA draft. There is real peril in telling prominent athletes to stand down from public activism, because it risks telling them that social issues aren’t their concern. “When people suggest there should be some separation between politics and sports, what they are really asking is for them to put their citizenship aside,” says John Smith, history professor at Georgia Tech and a co-author of “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.”
The suggestion here is not that the Warriors should set their citizenship or politics aside. Rather, that they make a declarative statement about the bright-line difference between dissent and contempt. Recently Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, remarked that “The real problem in American politics today is not anger, it’s contempt. Contempt is the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.”
The athlete boycott has historically been an anti-contempt device, a consciousness-raising device for pointing out the contempt inherent in racism or sexism. The unfortunate irony is that in this instance, a boycott would not raise anything, but only further lower the contemptuous discourse. It would occur in the poisonous context of what-aboutism, in which circular arguments rage over who is more intolerant, the far left or far right, the context of Crooked Hillary and Traitor Trump, of a Caesar-President assassinated in a Shakespeare play. A context in which conservatives cheer when reporter Ben Jacobs is body-slammed and his glasses broken for asking a question about the budget, and liberal protesters assault scholar Charles Murray and put a professor in the hospital simply for trying to give a lecture at Middlebury.
Anybody can exile their political enemy these days. Everyone’s doing it.
What’s needed now is not more exiling, more estrangement, more distance, more abstracting of political opponents into paper targets. John Inazu, scholar-author of “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference,” makes a point about tolerance. Real tolerance is not some gauzy idea of accepting all viewpoints as equal, valid and harmless. Real tolerance means enduring someone you are utterly sure is wrong. And Inazu predicts that if we don’t foster it, if we don’t figure out how to create a healthier civic culture the operates on persuasion and not coercion, how to coexist in the face of structural faultlines and anxieties and screaming minority viewpoints, we’re faced with two options: violent anarchy, or totalitarianism.
The Warriors, attractive public figures as they are, have a unique ability to cut through all the shouting and perform an act of critical social activism: They can be exemplars of political civility at a time when it’s most needed. They can gracefully agree to meet with someone they may oppose with their whole souls, and stand in a room with him and grip his hand, and then turn around and tell the world, this is what Americans do; even when we disagree, we shake, we don’t shoot.
“High profile athletes have significant followings, and in an era that is seeing the weakening of formal institutions and authorities, the influence of athletes on those followings may continue to grow,” Inazu says. “I would love to see all of us, including those with the biggest reach, slow down our social media impulses, minimize the hot takes, and resist the snark. Easier said than done.”