Donald Trump responded to NBA opposition of racial inequality with remarks rooted in racial inequality.
In a radio appearance on Fox Sport’s Radio’s “Outkick the Coverage” on Tuesday morning, the President of the United States suggested basketball’s ratings are down in the weeks since the season resumed at the end of July because of the league’s support for social justice, going so far as to say “there was a nastiness about the NBA” as it peacefully protested police brutality and systemic racism, among other injustices.
None of this is true, of course. Television ratings for games played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex are consistent with pre-hiatus numbers, if not better. During the national anthem, players almost universally kneeled along the sidelines of a court emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter,” sporting jerseys with a list of social justice statements ranging from “Respect Us” to “Education Reform.” NBA stars have actively protested without a hint of nastiness since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May.
“I think it’s been horrible for basketball,” Trump told Fox Sports Radio. “Look at the basketball ratings. They’re down to very, very low numbers. People are angry about it. They don’t realize. They have enough politics with guys like me. They don’t need more as they’re driving down, going up for the shot. They don’t need it. There was a nastiness about the NBA the way it was done, too, so I think the NBA’s in trouble. I think it’s in big trouble, bigger trouble than they understand, and frankly ice hockey, which is doing very well, they didn’t do that. They respected the mores. They respected what they’re supposed to be doing.”
We should probably mention that NHL players have also kneeled for the anthem and protested injustice.
“First of all, I don’t think anybody in the NBA cares if President Trump watches basketball. I couldn’t care less,” New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick told Yahoo Sports on July 31. “As far as his base, I think regardless of the specificity of tweeting about the NBA, every tweet of his is meant to divide, every tweet is meant to incite, every tweet is meant to embolden his base. So [last week] was no different.”
And neither is this.
Trump pretended not to notice the criticism he has received from NBA players and coaches in recent years, instead questioning their intelligence, a trope he has often used when attacking people of color he dislikes.
“I haven’t noticed them sending things back at me, but I will say that I wouldn’t be that surprised,” he told Fox Sports Radio. “Some are very nasty — very, very nasty — and frankly very dumb. But I haven’t noticed that. I will say this: The way they catered to China, the way they bowed to China, it’s a disgrace, and they make a lot more money here than they do from China. But we have a system that allows you to disrespect your system, and that’s too bad for them. Too bad for them. They don’t appreciate what they have here.”
It is fine to criticize the NBA’s response to China’s human rights violations following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support for protests in Hong Kong, but it is hard when you also have considerable business interests tied to the Chinese government and have reportedly praised China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, for the country’s internment camps and sought his help in re-election.
Trump said last week he has turned off the NBA since players began kneeling for the anthem. It is unclear whether he watched much basketball, if any, prior to the four-month hiatus. It seems he has soured on the sport ever since a number of prominent players and coaches, including LeBron James, have called out the president’s racist actions and the champion Golden State Warriors did not visit the White House in 2017.
It is clearer that Trump does not watch hockey. “Somebody told me hockey works” as an entertainment medium without fans in attendance, he told Fox Sports Radio. This was after he declared, “Basketball’s not working. I think basketball’s not working because of the way they treated our flag and our anthem, if you want to know the truth. But it doesn’t seem to have anything. I looked at it, and I couldn’t watch it.”
I have no idea how anyone could say basketball without fans is any different from hockey without fans from an entertainment standpoint, unless you are pitting one against the other for ulterior reasons. I can imagine you might say the NHL is doing better if a number of NBA superstars have called out your racist behavior.
Most everyone else who was watching basketball before the suspension of the season is very much still watching basketball. The NBA reopened on TNT to an average of 2.9 million viewers on July 30, more than double the network’s average rating during the regular season. The Lakers-Clippers game is the most-watched prime-time cable sports program since July 30, and the NBA has scored eight of the top-10 such programs. The first Sunday prime-time matchup of the restart, between the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets, was the highest-rated game of the season not played by the Los Angeles Lakers or on Christmas.
In fact, prime-time viewership has increased 11 percent from earlier in the season, even excluding the ratings for regional sports networks also broadcasting the games. The NBA has won prime-time every night among its coveted demographic of males aged 18 to 49. We could go on, but surely you get the point.
It is true that the NBA’s ratings have been in decline over the past few seasons, as is all television in the cord-cutting era, but the sport is still being consumed by more people than ever. Consider, for example, the league generated more than 75 million video views across its Twitter accounts on reopening night alone.
The inequality comes in when Trump suggests a sport predominantly played by white men is “doing very well” in comparison to a sport predominantly played by Black men, ignoring the facts. The NBA’s ratings are significantly higher than the NHL’s. In fact, the lowest-rated national TV game of this NBA season is still equivalent to many of the NHL’s top-rated games. Keep in mind, too, the NHL reopened to playoff games. Average ratings for nationally televised NHL playoff games are 62 percent lower than NBA seeding games.
To say “there was a nastiness about the NBA” in its players’ peaceful pleas for racial equality is clearly problematic, even more so when in the same breath the president heaps praise on the NHL, a league that also supports social justice, albeit not as vocally with fewer Black voices. When given the opportunity to support some of the nation’s most prominent people of color — many of whom wear jerseys that literally say “Peace” and “Love Us” — Trump chose to inflame the very social injustice they are protesting against.
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