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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Trump's War on Black Jocks

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Never forget it: Donald Trump rode birtherism like a surfboard into the White House. He first played the birther card back in 2011 ("I'm starting to think that [Obama] was not born here"), and the next year cited "an extremely credible source" that Obama's birth certificate was a "fraud." In certain parts of this country that message rang a bell and gave a special cachet to the businessman who had bankrupted a series of casinos and yet somehow came out ahead of the game (as his investors didn't) before turning Americans across the land into so many apprentices. Who cared that, from the beginning, birtherism was the fakest of "fake news"? There was, after all, a black man in the White House. Something was obviously off. Why not his life from birth? Trump, of course, never apologized or admitted that birtherism was a pack of lies. In fact, rumors have it that he's still pushing the "theory" from the Oval Office.

Everything else followed: the Mexican "rapists"; the Muslim monsters against whom the door to the kingdom was to be barred; even those children ripped from their parents' arms at the border. And all of it began with birtherism, an impulse which, in the post-election years, has developed into a distinctly racist desire to obliterate every last inch of the Obama legacy -- from the Paris climate accord to the Iran nuclear pact, from transgender policy in the military and prisons to, in recent days, wiping out the former president's affirmative action program for colleges. (Keep 'em white!) His urge: to be the ultimate anti-Obama, the whitest president around in a country slated to become "minority white" by perhaps 2045 no matter what he does.

Can there be any question that, at the very least, never has a president worked harder to obliterate his predecessor from the pages of history? Think of Donald Trump's birtherism and racism as his version of affirmative action. In addition, think of what's always called his white "base" not as his supporters but as his fans in the political grandstands of his life; and, while you're at it, think of The Donald himself as some strange kind of sports event in the White House. No wonder he's gone after those black football players taking a knee during the national anthem and otherwise protesting his style of racism with such a passion. And that's why TomDispatch jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte is the perfect person to situate the president on the present field of play. Tom

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Another Season of Despair
Or a Pigskin Blue Wave?
By Robert Lipsyte

Snatching immigrant babies may have scored some points for President Trump with his base, but it was never going to light up the scoreboard like tackling black jocks. That one really played to the grandstands. The complicated combination of adoration and resentment so many white males feel for those rich, accomplished uber-men is a significant but rarely discussed aspect of fandom, especially in relation to football, that magna cum macho of American sports.

Last September, when the commander-in-chief of toxic masculinity dubbed any football player who didn't stand during the playing of the national anthem a "son of a b*tch," the war on black men took a spectacular pop-cultural surge. And unlike white cops who shoot unarmed black men, President Trump didn't even have to claim that he had been afraid.

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He should have been, though. After all, he might have sparked a slaves' revolt that, in the end, could do him in. The opportunity to crack the whip on the fantasy plantation called pro football was, however, just too irresistible for him. Whether it will trigger a long-awaited, long-deferred Jock Spring is the big question of the coming season to which there's a critical corollary: Will such sustained activism be supported by the white players of the National Football League as well? That hasn't happened yet and it could change things in major ways.

"For white players it's about the fear of losing their jobs," David Meggyesy, a white former NFL linebacker, who in the 1960s set a standard for radical outspokenness, told me recently. "But too many white fans share Trump's tribalism that includes seeing white players as the brains and black players as the bodies, not too smart, who should just shut up and play."

Trump, once a pro football owner himself, clearly understands a white male mindset in which black football players exist only to provide on-field thrills, never to be humanized, much less allowed to protest inequality and racism. Meanwhile, the players, most of whom know that they are easily replaceable, often lacking guaranteed contracts, exist at the sufferance of their white billionaire team owners, a number of whom were early Trump donors.

Silent Seasons

Looking back, it's little wonder that, for almost half a century, black athletes had been a politically silent segment of the black entertainment industry. The reigning superstars -- O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods -- collaborated with owners, television, and corporate America in their successful pursuit of record-breaking wealth, while refusing to take stands against racism. Simpson and Woods even denied their own blackness. O.J. once explained to me that he wasn't black or white, he was O.J., while Tiger, with a Thai mother and an African-American father, claimed to be "Cablinasian." They set the standard and its reward system: as long as the players continued to remain apolitical, owners and fans were basically willing to tolerate bad behavior, ostentation, and a sullen refusal to be grateful.

But by 2016, with Trump soon to be elected, O.J. in jail, Tiger in decline, and Jordan now the principal owner of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, the resistance, led by Colin Kaepernick on that now-famous knee, began to grow. President Trump would be directly dissed when, in April 2017, many New England Patriots declined invitations to the White House after winning the 2017 Super Bowl. That September, after the president disinvited Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry to the White House for comments he made suggesting that he might not attend a championship ceremony there, the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James chipped in. He addressed Trump in a tweet as "U Bum" and wrote that "going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!" In June 2018, Trump had to cancel a Super Bowl party after most of the Super-Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles team indicated they wouldn't be attending. And in June, LeBron and Curry once again said that, whichever of their teams won the NBA championship, neither would be stopping by with the league trophy and a jersey with Trump's name on the back.

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That could be part of the reason why, a week before that title tournament began, the president issued a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, who in 1908 was the first African-American to become world heavyweight boxing champion. Both Presidents Bush and Obama had declined to pardon him when asked.

In 1913, Johnson had been convicted of transporting a white woman over a state line "for immoral purposes" in violation of the Mann Act. He fled the country but eventually returned to serve prison time. The son of former slaves, Johnson, who died in 1946, became a symbol of black athletic activism for flaunting his money, his bling, and his white paramours.

Sports fans were so outraged by his success and his attitude that the call went out for a "Great White Hope" who would beat him in the ring. Novelist Jack London even begged a retired white champ, Jim Jeffries, to "emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile off Johnson's face." In 1910, in the "fight of the century," Jeffries was soundly beaten and race riots subsequently broke out across the country with hundreds injured and 20 people killed. Back when a boxing champion was the beau ideal of masculinity, it was simply unacceptable to have a black Mr. Man.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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