Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on NFL Protests: Athletes and Entertainers "May Be Our Best Hope"

Inset: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

"I have never been prouder to be a part of the athletic community," writes the NBA great and THR contributor as even Trump supporter Tom Brady resists the president's attacks on pros who #TakeaKnee.

I have never been prouder to be a part of the athletic community than I was this weekend as players and owners in football, basketball and baseball displayed public unity in their resistance to the racist, anti-veteran and anti-American statements by President Donald Trump. Talk show hosts and other celebrity entertainers from Stevie Wonder to Eddie Vedder to Samuel L. Jackson voiced their heartfelt support. This marks a decided shift in the sports and entertainment industries’ role in political resistance to the Trump administration’s assault on American values and constitutional civil liberties. They have evolved from quiet protest and heckling sarcasm, to respected leaders informing the public about what’s at stake. And in doing so, perhaps change the downward social spiral we are in.

What makes this uprising of moral indignation and political zeal in the entertainment industry (and I include sports as entertainment) so significant is that these people speaking out do so with the full realization that they have something personal to lose. The players risk their entire futures, including jobs as well as endorsement deals. The NFL, MLB and NBA had previously taken a dip in attendance and in TV ratings, so the possibility of alienating potential viewers and park attendees is a bold move. Clearly, they are all motivated by something more important than profits: patriotism. The prospect of having the president dictate team policy while shredding the First Amendment was too much for many.

Yes, talk show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert have been mocking Trump with increasing frequency over the past year. But they were generally preaching to the choir of those already opposing him. To those still assessing Trump’s performance as president, their tone could have seemed more bitter than incisive. Perhaps these comedians held on to a slim hope that poking fun at him might wake Trump to his responsibilities to all Americans, not just his loyal few. However, that has proven not to work. His loyalty is only to his base of wealthy white donors hoping to cash in on huge profits from his deregulations, ignorant white supremacists who herald a return to free-range racism and born followers who will support him despite all the evidence that they are the ones most hurt by his policies. That’s about 30 percent of the population and nothing will budge them from attaching themselves to his behind like barnacles on a ship.

 

The target demographic up for grabs, the ones open to late-date logic, are those who want to have faith in the president but are disturbed by his erratic and dangerous behavior. They are torn between holding the course while holding their noses and hoping for the best, or admitting that they made a huge mistake. That’s who entertainers and athletes hope to influence. When a staunch Trump supporter like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady says, “I certainly disagree with what [Trump] said. I thought it was just divisive,” and locks arms with his teammates during the national anthem to show support for their protest, that has impact on this group.

In an effort to also influence this target audience, the talk show hosts’ routines have taken a darker, more urgent turn. With North Korean nuclear threats, the president endorsing racists at Charlottesville [Va.], a mystery plan in Afghanistan, the hobbling of the EPA and other consumer protections, attempts to ram through faulty health-care bills and more, we aren’t laughing anymore. The mood of the country is fearful and anxious, like passengers aboard the Titanic wondering if that iceberg isn’t a little too close despite the captain saying not to worry, he’s the greatest captain the world has ever seen. We can’t hide from these harsh realities by escaping in talk show antics or the diversion of sports when — to their credit — athletes and entertainers are reminding us of the seriousness of our national crisis. Because they have so much to lose by expressing their politics, they have become trusted voices in delivering the news and may be our best hope in turning the country around.

Trump loyalists — the unscrapable 30 percent — have spouted the usual irrational statements. They will mention how it’s disrespectful to the country to protest the flag or the national anthem, citing the soldiers who fought and died for our freedoms. They didn’t fight for those things, they fought for what they represent: our right to exercise our freedom of speech. Yet, the president insults that sacrifice by trying to curb that freedom. Trump calling for punishment for exercising these rights is the same rationalization used in union busting and breaking up civil rights marches. The oppressed should be grateful for whatever scraps they get. The subtext here is that black athletes and entertainers have been invited to the Big House to sit at the table with the bosses. As long as we keep shuffling and entertaining, express our gratitude and keep our mouths shut like small children, then we can stay. But if we mention the conditions of those people outside, we are threatened with expulsion from the white Garden of Eden.

Star Trek: The Next Generation’s most frightening villain was the Borg, a hive-mind collective that assimilated every life form they came across. Sound familiar? The Borg used to tell their enemies, “Resistance is futile.” Maybe so. But lately, when I look around at those brave, outspoken athletes and entertainers leading the resistance, I think maybe not.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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