TAKING A STAND
Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich 2020: How the NBA’s Two Best Coaches Are Leading Sports’ Resistance
The coaches for the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have become outspoken anti-Trump figures. Will prominent white athletes follow suit?
There’s a website, because the fantasy has proven so intoxicating of course someone was going to throw up a website. But as the unnamed creators of PopovichKerr2020.com make clear, they’re not trying to convince Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, two of the NBA’s most revered and successful coaches, to ditch basketball and form an honest-to-goodness presidential ticket.
It’s a platform to purchase T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with logos from this non-existent campaign, which, the website promises, will then be directed to a few worthy and left-adjacent charitable causes. In November, the site’s creators claimed to have raised upwards of $25,000.
But the merchandise is flying off the virtual shelves—Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton is a customer—because a great many on the left would be thrilled if either Popovich or Kerr or ideally, both, ran for higher office, thanks to their vocal endorsement of progressive ideas and ideals.
Combining a steely-eyed intelligence and a deep understanding of the attendant issues with a sense of compassion, palpable dismay and often, justifiable outrage, their polemics have been directed at any number of failed institutions and failings in American society, particularly those centering on race and guns, and particularly at Donald Trump.
For the wide-eyed dreamers, you can stop here. Both Popovich and Kerr have made it abundantly clear that they will not run and are not qualified to be the leader of the free world. They’re right. A good chunk of the online sports world will continue to do cartwheels at the mere suggestion and political reporters will opine that it’s not a completely insane idea. But if Democrats are to have a chance of unseating an incumbent president or flipping either house of Congress, they need to untether themselves from the delusion that a rich, inexperienced celebrity—whether that’s Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, or Trump himself—can ride in like a well-heeled white knight and make the world whole again.
Moreover, as Dr. Harry Edwards, the renowned longtime activist, professor of sociology, and an advisor to a slew socially-minded athletes from Colin Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali, and Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN, ESPN The Magazine, and the author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, told The Daily Beast, they have a different role to play.
That is to say, there are certain unpleasant truths that can’t make their way across the American racial and cultural divide. As two older, white, male authority figures in sports, Popovich and Kerr can reach white audiences in a way that black athletes, no matter how lauded, famous, or respected, cannot, thanks to the still-present racial barriers, prejudices, and persistent inequalities in American society. And their words would be nigh impossible to hear were they standing behind a podium on the stump in New Hampshire, as opposed to a podium for a post-game presser.
Before we go any further, it’s worth noting the profound transformation which has taken place in this specific intersection of sports and politics. As recently as five years ago, a pro or even college coach who did dip their toes into non-sports matters tended to sound a lot like ex-Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka. A consistent and early Trump backer, Ditka said regarding NFL protests against police brutality, “If they don’t like the country, they don’t like our flag, get the hell out.”
Even a noted leftist like Phil Jackson felt compelled to broadcast his support for SB 1070, an onerous anti-immigrant Arizona bill that would have allowed police officers to demand proof of legal resident status. When the Phoenix Suns wore special “Los Suns” jerseys on Cinco de Mayo to protest the legislation, Jackson, who was seen carrying a placard and shouting at the riot cops during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, said, “I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff.”
Now we’ve moved so far beyond Michael Jordan’s apocryphal line about selling Nikes to the GOP that it’s considered very much the norm when Russell Westbrook calls for solidarity with striking Oklahoma teachers, or Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wonders why the U.S. can’t enact strict, Canadian-style gun control laws.
The athletes themselves have led this charge. As current ESPN color commentator and former coach Jeff Van Gundy told The New Yorker, Spurs assistant Becky Hammon might eventually snag a head-coaching gig, whereas 20 years ago, the idea of a female NBA head coach was the stuff of broad Hollywood comedies. “But you know who doesn’t get enough credit? Players,” he said. “I think they have really made incredible progress.”
But white athletes haven’t—for the most part—locked arms in solidarity. Tom Brady has moved heaven and earth to hide his political leanings after reporters spotted a Make America Great hat tucked in his locker, and ownership, as a whole, has made it clear which side they’re on. Even if they rarely vocalize their beliefs, all you have to do is follow the money,
There’s been no such silence from Popovich and Kerr. Far from it. Once Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee and continuing through his first year and a half in office, Popovich and Kerr have repeatedly called out his misogyny, xenophobia, and racism. Popovich has slammed Trump’s willingness to pander to white supremacists post-Charlottesville, and he got on the blower with The Nation to call Trump a “soulless coward” for his failure to offer condolences after U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, and a “pathological liar” who is transforming America into an “embarrassment to the world.” When Trump spent the weekend at Mar-a-Lago more or less ignoring the millions of Americans who took to the streets calling for increased gun control legislation, Popovich said the president “brings out the dark side of human beings, for his own purpose, which is himself.”
For Kerr’s part, he’s repeatedly advocated for LGBTQ rights; took the NFL to task for its ridiculous and self-defeating new National Anthem rules, though he failed to mention that the NBA forces all players to stand; railed against the attempt to ban entry into the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries; said he was “crushed” by Trump’s repeated attempts to paint NFL players as anti-military and un-American; and called him a “blowhard” who “couldn’t be more ill-suited to be president.” Following the Warriors’ collapse in the 2016 Finals, he made sure to address the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. “I remember feeling so disgusted. So disheartened,” he said, calling the current state of gun control policy “insane” and begging for reforms.
But when LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Maya Moore voice far less incendiary sentiments, they will be dismissed outright by a good chunk of Americans, charged with playing the “race card” if they advocate for social justice, reforms of the criminal justice system, and the end to state-sanctioned violence. After ESPN’s Jemele Hill tweeted that president Trump was a white supremacist, the response, steeped in bad-faith arguments, was overwhelming, but aside from the gripes of a few Spurs fans and bog-standard aggregation from the right-wing media, Pop and Kerr have never faced that kind of backlash, even when Popovich said straight out, “We live in a racist country.”
Reached by phone, Edwards, who was invited by Kerr to speak with the Warriors prior to the 2016 election and has served as a consultant to the team, said that this is to be expected.
“At the end of the day we are so tribal, we are so lost in our singular, tribal perspectives, that it’s very difficult to hear the truth from across the tribal barricades,” he said. “White people have a difficult time hearing that America is steeped in white supremacy.”
When Popovich and Kerr talk about hard-wired racial injustices, white privilege, and the inability of white Americans to comprehend a non-white lived experience, it may drive a segment of the population to fits of rage. “But they cannot use the same pushback methods that they would use against a Michael Bennett or a Malcolm Jenkins or Anquan Boldin or Colin Kaepernick or an Eric Reid,” said Edwards.
Bryant agreed. “I think he’s right,” he said, referring to Edwards’s assessment. “I think it’s not just the message but the messenger.”
When he was working as a columnist at the Boston Herald from 2002 to 2005, Bryant recalls writing opinions that he didn’t consider that “controversial,” but if they touched in any way on race, “part of the population was immediately going to shut off.”
In comparison, his colleague at the Boston Globe, Bob Ryan, could offer a very similar take on the same subject matter—even if Ryan rarely covered race and sports—and, “people would listen,” he said.
“And he knew it and I knew it... The white, mainstream public, they don't feel as threatened when it’s coming from one of their own.” (Via email, Ryan, who considers Bryant a friend and recently hosted him on his podcast, said, “I don’t recall any specific conversation with Howard in which we hashed out that topic. I’m assuming he assumed I would have that sensibility.”)
When Kerr and Popovich confront structural injustices, particularly vis-à-vis race, “I think it’s viewed as less of an indictment, whereas if it comes from the minority, they take very personal offense to it,” said Bryant. “People will listen because the messenger looks the part. When the messenger doesn’t look the part, it’s a threat. It’s a threat if a black writer says it. It’s a threat when a black athlete says it.”
This dynamic holds true even if the white speaker in question hasn’t graduated high school. After James went off on Trump in a video hosted by his site, Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham literally told James to “shut up and dribble.” Her comments were met with fairly resounding criticism—and James offered his own thoughts on the matter—but her condescending jeremiad never posed an existential threat to her nightly 10 pm show. However, after she lobbed one smug and snide tweet at a 17-year-old gun control activist, David Hogg, her program began hemorrhaging advertisers.
As a whole, Edwards spoke highly of Hogg and all the young Parkland activists, particularly their decision to involve students from urban centers who have been calling for greater regulation for years now, in the protests. Hogg’s call for a boycott was taken seriously, however, “Because a white kid is in the tribe,” he said. “Seventeen kids get killed at a white school in Florida and you get a national movement, covered by the national press.”
It’s why for real change to occur, prominent white athletes need to get off the bench. “The Chris Longs of the world are out there on an island by themselves,” Bryant said. And when the NFL’s brightest stars have offered minimal support for Kaepernick, as was the case with Aaron Rodgers and Brady, both of whom said he deserves to be on a roster, the words haven’t been backed by concrete actions.
“Okay, [Rodgers] said it, but what’s he done for it?” asked Bryant. Rodgers and Brady, he explained, have the privilege and the power to choose whether or not to weigh in on these subjects at all. “It’s the difference between being a topic and being your life. When you’re black, this is your life.”
Edwards was effusive in his praise of both Popovich and Kerr, calling them “national treasures.” Beyond their persistence in addressing society’s ills, what’s so valuable is their ability to empathize and see beyond the strictures of their own economic and racial status. It’s also worth noting that Kerr and Popovich have enough job security and clout to eliminate any worries about having their opinions held against them by future employers.
But as Bryant said, this too is an extension of white privilege. “Who would be the black coach who has that sort of platform to say those things?” he asked.
With regards to a possible future for Kerr and Popovich in politics, Edwards is sure it’ll never happen. If that sends you into a paroxysm of despair, feel free to indulge in the (fake) stump speeches cobbled together by New York Magazine from a slew of Popovich’s and Kerr’s recent quotes. To a certain degree, he shares your disappointment.
“One of the grave contradictions of democracy,” he said, “is that those people who are most competent, capable and credible, in terms of potential candidacy for high political office, are also smart enough not to run.”