Professional sports aren’t perfect, but they represent some of humanity’s best qualities: team building, perseverance, loyalty and, above all, good sportsmanship. So when the dishonor that’s been increasingly common in U.S. politics reached this area, the impact may have been more noticeable.
What’s the more visible problem?
Trump’s disparaging comments over the weekend—namely, his suggestion that an NFL owner should fire a “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.”
What’s the less visible problem?
James’ and other players’ rebukes, and the way the media reported on them, both of which were also either dishonorable or promoted dishonor.
Why is all of this a problem?
Because disparaging someone is violent — it’s demeaning to one’s personhood and character, and it’s irreversible. No matter how well you know the person who’s being disparaged, and even if the claims are false, you can’t “un-know” the insults once it’s out in the open. After this weekend, it may be hard to forget the term “son of a bitch” when thinking of football players who take a knee, and the word “bum” may be tied to your perception of Trump. If people are accused of doing something wrong, it’s best to state in data-based terms what they’ve done, rather than attack their character.
With these comments, Trump damaged the way we view Curry and certain football players, and James damaged the way we view Trump and the office of the presidency. It’s not to say Trump’s own conduct didn’t do damage, but for James to have done the same in turn doesn’t right the wrong, even if his defense of Curry was well intended. We may never be able to think about this president or future ones the same way again. And we may never be able to think about these or other sports stars just for their athletic merits. These are effects we cannot take back.
What’s the media’s role?
The media further compounded the problem by adding its own bias and opinion, giving an already public platform even more force and reach through its coverage. HuffPost, for example, portrayed Trump as an adversary to black sports figures in general, which may be an exaggeration:
In the span of less than two weeks, the president of the United States has used his bully pulpit three times to attack prominent black sports figures. That is a remarkable and improper use of presidential power. But it is not at all surprising that sports figures have become the focus of Trump’s ire.
It may be reasonable to view Trump’s statements as a “remarkable and improper use of presidential power,” but it’s still opinion. And calling his position a “bully pulpit” and saying his comments are “not at all surprising” is also opinion, and portrays Trump negatively. Moreover, it also attempts to right the dishonor with dishonor, which doesn’t work.
The Washington Post similarly suggested it’s a race issue, but it also establishes a pattern (“once again”) and implies Trump isn’t likely to change direction:
Once again, Trump has placed himself squarely at the center of a wrenching national debate over race. But unlike past presidents who have given at least some voice to a desire to bridge the historic divides in American life, Trump seems eager to lean into those disputes.
Opinions like these typecast the president as the type of person who’s “eager” and therefore likely to “lean into” these types of disputes. Maybe Trump will continue down this road, or maybe he’ll take a different direction — in either case, his actions will speak for themselves. But for the media to plant the seed that it’ll go this way is jumping to conclusions.
Reuters also exaggerated the events by portraying them as Trump “clash[ing]” with the “sports world,” and Breitbart came to Trump’s defense but dishonored James in the process by invalidating his perspective and saying he’s “wrong.” In all four cases, the media’s added bias and opinion mask the problem and promote further dishonor. How could journalists report exchanges like these in an honorable way, so as to not add fuel to the fire?
Why should anyone care?
If condoned or undetected, dishonor spreads like wildfire. Trump attacks Curry and the NFL, James attacks Trump, media outlets attack either Trump or the athletes, readers and fans attack any of the parties involved, and on and on it goes. Just look at some of the comments on Twitter or Facebook over the weekend.
Like violence, disparaging someone simply breeds more of the same, unless we’re aware of what’s being done and its damaging effects, and are willing to disrupt it. The problem with dishonor is it’s less apparent compared to other forms of violence, so it often goes undetected and, in some areas of society, it’s become acceptable. Many people are affected by abuses and criminal acts, from grade school bullying to international warfare, but all of us are affected by dishonorable communication. Living in the age of information, it’s a major challenge of our time. And whether we can prevent it isn’t determined by a single event, but by our daily conduct.
The less we’re aware of and identify dishonor, the less we understand it and the less likely we are to stop it. Imagine what the world would look like if principles like honor, graciousness and respect for others — even one’s opponent — no longer mattered.
Good sportsmanship offers the world so much. It’s time it makes a comeback.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News