President Donald Trump's continued lashing out at football and basketball athletes — sports with high percentages of black players — raises questions about the complicated nexus of race, sports and politics, some African American studies scholars say.
Yesterday, Trump again attacked LaVar Ball, the father of the UCLA basketball player who was detained in China with two of his teammates who were arrested on accusations of shoplifting on Nov. 7 while scheduled to play their season opener in Shanghai.
Trump also previously pointed out that he secured the release of UCLA players LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jaden Hill. After their arrest, the three college basketball players were released on bail but were required to remain in their hotel in China until the legal process was over.
While in Asia on a foreign trip at the same time, Trump appealed to Chinese President Xi Jinping for their release back to the United States. The three players returned to the United States Nov. 14 and apologized in a news conference the next day, admitting to shoplifting and thanking Trump for securing their return home.
It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence - IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
...LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
The nature of and language in Trump's tweets could strike some as "racially coded," said Douglas Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who has written about politics, sports and race.
"Not only is it racially coded, and more or less visibly and intentionally, but I think it is also ... kind of another way that Trump uses Twitter and other things and sports in particular to distract from other issues," Hartmann said.
Ben Carrington, a sociology professor at the USC and author of the 2010 book “Race, Sport and Politics,” said that Trump’s tweet and the language he uses “clearly has racial overtones.”
“Trump will constantly use racially coded language that he knows plays to his base,” Carrington told ABC News.
Carrington argued that one such example is Trump’s speech at a rally in Alabama back in September, where he said, "Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now?'"
“When Trump uses language referring to black athletes or other black figures that kind of speak out in terms of them being ungrateful and undeserving of their place in sports, he’s re-invoking that dark era in American sports in which that language was explicit and black players couldn't play,” Carrington said.
The criticism of LaVar Ball is one of several attacks Trump has launched against athletes.
He has called for NFL players — including former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who started the movement —- who kneel during the National Anthem -- to be fired.
Trump said in September that his criticism of the players "has nothing to do with race," rather it's about "respect for our country, flag and national anthem."
Trump also rescinded the invitation to Stephen Curry and the Golden Warriors to visit the White House after the basketball player expressed reservations about attending based on his own political beliefs.
Abraham Khan, an assistant professor of African American studies and Communication Arts and Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, said there are two possible ways to view Trump's attacks against LaVar Ball.
Trump's attacks against LaVar Ball could be seen as a demand for gratitude, Khan said.
On the flip side, "if you want to see race as essential to the story then you have to think about it through the history of the white savior narrative, and particularly in sports and the way that athletes are sort of expected to be grateful for what sport has given them," Khan said of Trump's criticism.
A day after several NFL players took a knee in protest of social injustice in the wake of Trump’s comments, Trump tweeted that he was “so proud of NASCAR.”
“They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!" Trump tweeted in September.
So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
A few weeks after disinviting Curry, Trump welcomed the 2017 Stanley Cup champions the Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House in October, calling them “incredible patriots.”
Both NASCAR and the NHL have predominantly white players and majority white fan bases. Only about a third of the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team is American, the rest are from other countries including Canada, Russia and Sweden.
“In Trump’s eyes, a white Canadian is more of a true American patriot than a black NFL player or a black NBA player,” Carrington said.
Since returning home, LiAngelo Ball has publicly expressed thanks to the president for his efforts. However, his father has not, saying instead, "I don't have to go around saying thank you to everybody.”
It is a slight that seemed to rankle the president, the scholars said.
In response to LaVar Ball’s comments, Trump tweeted Sunday that he should’ve left the UCLA players in jail.
Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2017
“You know where my boy is at right now because of me,” LaVar Ball said in an interview with CNN Monday, adding, “Don't come in one time and think you did something for my son.”
Hartmann also said that while Trump has found a high profile adversary in LeVar Ball, the feud doesn't focus attention on more substantive racial issues.
“Trump’s been able to make the focus be on whether this is appropriate or not, and how players should be punished or disciplined, and completely distracted our attention from the racial issues that the players who are protesting want to focus our attention on - police brutality, huge wealth gaps, the treatment of African Americans in cities - those are real racial issues," Hartmann said.
But Carrington also argues that the president may be to thank.
“Black athletes are showing that sports and politics are deeply interconnected,” Carrington said, adding “In some ways, we should thank Donald Trump somewhat ironically for exposing this myth or this lie that sports and politics are somehow disconnected.”