When Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, social media did not exist in its current form. But make no mistake, it existed in a different form. Walter Cronkite then was Mark Zuckerberg now.
When Michael Jordan said “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Al Gore had only recently invented the Internet, and Bill Clinton was in the process of imprisoning more black Americans than any of his predecessors had for at least 100 years.
So as we all navigate the LeBron James v. Donald Trump hysteria, please keep one overriding thought in mind: Americans live in a country with free speech and freedom of choice.
Some people are comfortable with the public spotlight on an athletic level, but not on a political level. Others are OK with delving into both spheres.
There is no “One size fits all” rule here. OK?
Because this discussion is not simple or simplistic on any level.
Yes, it is polarizing.
There are extraordinary forces and extraordinary issues in play, and nobody is really wrong — as long as one respects each individual’s respective position.
With Ali, the issue was the Vietnam War, and when he said “I ain’t got no problem with no VietCong,” he was speaking from the heart. At the time, 18-year-olds were not fascinated with smartphones, Tinder and/or Fortnite.
They were fascinated by turning on the TV for a different kind of draft lottery.
Back then, the big national televised event was the night when 365 “ping-pong balls” were drawn, and the order in which your birthday was drawn determined whether you were headed to Da Nang or to Woodstock.
So, it was sort of a monumental draft lottery on an individual basis.
With Jordan, the issue was salesmanship, public perception and playing both sides of the fence. There were moderates back then who were not on the fringes of the political spectrum. They actually were a majority.
With LeBron, we now have a man who relishes the opportunity to be a voice of social consciousness and if that means he gets into a Twitter war with POTUS, so be it.
The spooks (do not misread that) are probably secretly on his side … the ones who still have their jobs.
Make no mistake: California is on his side. It is a blue state. LeBron could not do what he is currently doing in a swing state such as Ohio — The Russians would not like it.
With Trump, he seizes every opportunity to appeal to his base. Usually, that means campaign-style rallies to places such as Wyoming or Montana or Mar-a-Lago, where he can do no wrong.
I guess we can add Helsinki to that list, or maybe not, that one sort of backfired.
Whatever the case, sports and politics often butt heads, which is why champions of all the major sports are forsaking trips to Washington, D.C., because the over/under on the number of showers needed per day usually sits at 2 1/2.
And you waste a lot of Irish Spring if you hit the over.
For perspective in this conundrum, I spent a bunch of time Monday and Tuesday speaking on the phone with Jay Mariotti, a fellow ESPN expat.
Perhaps you remember him for his worst days, which were fueled by journalistic integrity and other stuff.
I remember him for his best days.
Like myself, Jay follows the “Asshole Rule.” And the Asshole Rule states: “Don’t be an asshole.”
If you violate the “Asshole Rule,” I will have nothing to do with you.
If you play the pass line on the “Asshole Rule,” we can all try to go on an extended roll together.
Maybe we win, maybe we lose.
Whatever. It’s only money, and there will be more next week.
Anyway, Jay worked for the Chicago Sun-Times when there was a legitimate newspaper war in Chicago, and he went there after working for The National, which was the print version of the VC-Sponsored-Waiting-To-Pull-The-Plug sequel now known as The Athletic.
Jay had to cover Jordan, and when Mike was coming back from his stint as a baseball player, he had to camp out in the parking lot of Hoops-The Gym on the West Side of Chicago while his competition at The Chicago Tribune played golf and collected book royalties.
On September 10, 2001, he was in that parking lot with Jim Litke of The Associated Press when Jordan emerged from the gym.
“What are you guys doing here?” Jordan asked.
“Waiting for you,” was the reply.
“Why?” Jordan asked.
“Because you are coming back to the NBA, and our job is to report that story,” Mariotti/Litke said.
So Jordan nodded his head and gave them the story.
In the Chicago Tribune the next day, Jordan’s comeback (it was with the Washington Wizards, and was reported as “according to the AP and another newspaper”) was sort of big news.
Here is how Mariotti remembers it: “I could deal with all of Michael’s yelling and screaming for 5 minutes because afterward he would give me 20 minutes of good shit. He respected you if you worked.”
Mariotti has more Jordan, ESPN and other journalism stories than internet space constraints can handle. The over/under on “Asshole Rule” violators that he has worked for is 250.5.
Take the over.
So this column is not about him. He is merely a vehicle to get a window into what is happening to the guy, LeBron, who has been to eight consecutive NBA finals vs. the guy who has been to eight (or 80) consecutive rallies filled with people in red baseball caps.
They have different agendas.
One is trying to push a divisive agenda; one is trying to push a truthful agenda.
Somewhere in the middle is a ground that Americans are incapable of reaching under the current national dialogue climate.
We all have to live with it, and we can roll with it or let it destroy us.
Ali divided the country.
Jordan divided the NBA player population … and continues to do so by playing catch-up on social media in between wayward drives and offline putts.
Only Steve Williams can empathize with the hazard pay involved in dealing with either/both of them.
Or Tiger Woods/Adam Scott.
Here’s the bottom line: Trump v. LeBron is good for the country. Says who? Says this columnist. We all have to figure out difficult things in difficult times, and we all have our own battles to fight.
They are fighting theirs; we are fighting ours.
Ali did it. Jordan did it. Mariotti did it. Trump is doing it.
One way or another, sanity will prevail.
That is the hope, even if it is not the reality of what will ultimately happen.
We all have to wait and see … but we also have to remember what contemporary American sports and political history have already taught us. And it didn’t start with Muhammad Ali.
But he as is relevant to this discussion as LeBron James, Donald Trump and DACA are.
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