Donald Trump knows what he’s doing when he calls LeBron James dumb. He did not explicitly say “dumb,” but the point he made in a late-night tweet on Friday was clear. According to the President of the United States, LeBron James — the NBA’s best player, a wildly successful entrepreneur, and one of the most giving athletes on the planet — is not smart. At the very least, he’s not smart enough to comment on his presidency, because in the eyes of Trump, the only way you can smartly comment on any aspect of his existence is to speak with complete reverence.
James fell back into Trump’s crosshairs because he appeared on CNN talking about education and eloquently explained why Trump’s rhetoric against athletes of color is meant to cause divisions. Earlier in the year, James swore while talking candidly about Trump, earning the now infamous “shut up and dribble” criticism from Laura Ingram that trod the familiar ground of dog-whistle critiques of black athletes.
That Trump constantly rags on athletes of color, using dehumanizing language and questioning their intelligence, is the veiled kind of racist rhetoric he’s expressed throughout his political career. Sports fans call athletes dumb when they want to dismiss them as people, to make them some kind of lesser being who happens to be supremely talented physically and financially well-off exclusively because of that natural gift. But there is no way in which James can objectively be considered dumb. He might even be a genius, really, but the truth doesn’t matter much these days. Trump knows that, and he also knows the damage he does to the perception of James by those who support the president above nearly everything else.
Direct comparisons between Trump and James are grotesquely simple. LeBron has worked his entire life to get better at basketball than everyone else on Earth, and in the process amassed more wealth than anyone will ever need. He’s used that wealth to, among other charitable acts, fund a public school in his hometown of Akron. It opened last week, and on the day he forever changed the lives of 240 schoolchildren and set forth an initiative that will do the same for thousands more, he called it one of the most important moments of his life.
Trump was born wealthy and is still wealthy. The rest is all a bit uncertain, but when it comes to education — something Trump’s own wife seems to have a significant stake in — the comparison could not be more clear. Trump’s impact on education is twofold: A for-profit “university” that earned people little in knowledge and accumulated lawsuits for himself, and enabling a Department of Education that is hell-bent on fundamentally altering the way schools operate in the United States.
There’s a lot different about the two, it’s just the start. They clearly communicate differently, too. Every time Trump speaks off the cuff it’s a meandering journey through his stream of consciousness meant to air grievances against everyone, from politicians who have the gall to say his most abhorrent policies are a black mark on the United States to a celebrity who looked at him the wrong way at an Upper East Side cocktail hour in 1983. James, meanwhile, always means what he says. Everything he does is calculated, weighed, measured, and valued. There are few athletes in the world who understand their place in the cultural zeitgeist more than James. He’s used his position as the most visible American athlete to speak out eloquently about politics and pursue a myriad of off-court business ventures.
But James has gone out of his way to speak about things well beyond his obligations as an athlete, brand ambassador, or corporate partner. He’s used his time with the media to address the importance of black excellence on display in pop culture with Black Panther. Last season, James spoke about role models and said the three people that always matter are the best athlete, the best musician, and the president. James knows that he occupies one of those roles for millions (if not billions) of people around the world, and because he was willing to call Trump out for inaction in Charlottesville, he’s gained an enemy in a culture war where the rules only apply to one side of the debate.
Calling James dumb is jarring to anyone who watches the NBA, because you could argue that he’s is a legitimate genius, both on the court and off it. His ability to recall entire sequences of games is legendary. He’s one of those rare athletes that isn’t just good at sports in an unconscious way, but he has the ability to convey exactly what he’s doing to people. He can coach, he can accept that the things he can do few cannot. It is a skill that’s a lot harder to practice than it is to describe, but it’s part of what makes James so great.
Trump hasn’t shown himself to be the very stable genius he claims to be, either, and his view of reality is clearly distorted in many ways. But people listen to him, and he shares with millions a warped perspective where anyone who is critical of him — whether eloquent and thoughtful or derogatory and bombastic — is a lesser being. Unlike politicians who preach unity and togetherness, Trump plays up deep-seeded resentments as part of an “us vs. them” message to rile up whose who feel aggrieved. Trump makes anyone who does not support him or look like him The Other, and it’s a dangerous habit that does real harm. That Trump tweeting at odd hours can be weaponized into diminishing the real work James has done in opening his public school is a minor tragedy, but that it can erase James’ position as a thought leader in ways well beyond basketball is downright evil.
It’s reassuring that so many people have spoken out in support of James despite his own reticence. The NBA’s commissioner, Lakers boss Jeanie Buss, and plenty of NBA players have backed LeBron. It’s helpful because, in a way, he’s trapped by Trump’s tweet. Responding plays into every stereotype about athletes Trump loves to traffic in. Saying anything, even if it’s the simple, pointed criticism he levied at Trump on Friday, would almost certainly make things worse.
It would be phrased as a back-and-forth, as if there is any merit to what Trump has claimed about his intelligence. There isn’t any, though, and so James appears to have determined that keeping his head down and continuing to work seems the best possible response. It feels like it does, but when you really think about it and consider the source, it doesn’t matter what the President of the United States thinks about the best athlete in America, as the history books will do the speaking for him.