HOW WHITE AMERICANS view their country — and their president — appears to be almost split down the middle. In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of white Americans said they do not approve of President Donald Trump’s job performance. Anecdotally, the number sounds high, and I suspect it’s because far too many white Americans have a passive, almost silent disapproval of Trump. They might disapprove, but they aren’t saying so out loud; they simply don’t use their voices, their influence, or their privilege to call Trump out the way he truly deserves.
Enter Gregg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
At a time when black athletes and even black sports reporters are being targeted by Trump, Popovich has spent much of the past year stepping outside of his normally reserved role to use his white privilege in ways perhaps no white man in sports ever has.
On Monday evening, in a conversation with The Nation’s Dave Zirin, Popovich decided to call Trump out with the clearest ferocity anyone could muster. Hours earlier, Trump had said former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had never called families of fallen soldiers. The lie clearly incensed Popovich — himself an Air Force veteran.
Before the conversation began, Popovich said, “I want to say something, and please just let me talk, and please make sure this is on the record.” He then continued:
I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this president had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never ending divisiveness. But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families are so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words. … This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner — and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers — is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this president should be ashamed, because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.
The coach then said “bye” to Zirin and hung up.
Popovich’s statement was remarkable even outside the context of the sports world. Few public figures in American life have called out Trump and those who enable him with the same ferocity.
It seems like Popovich feels he has to say these things — not just because those around Trump won’t, but because he sees African-Americans ranging from Colin Kaepernick to ESPN’s Jemele Hill paying an enormous price in their careers because of Trump and his ilk. Popovich is fully aware that to be black and call out Trump comes with a cost — a cost that being white and calling out Trump does not incur. Trump has still refused to acknowledge or mention either Popovich or the white rapper Eminem — both of whom recently lambasted the president in harsh terms.
Popovich is not wasting his white privilege, but is using it for good — and not just by critiquing Trump, but by promoting essential conversations on race. This past September, Popovich tackled the issue of race and white privilege head on.
“Race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that,” Popovich said at a recent press conference, addressing Kaepernick and the NFL protests. “But unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going get better.” Popovich went on:
There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. Whether it’s the LGBT movement, or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable. And especially white people, because we’re comfortable.
We still have no clue what being born white means. … Yes, because you were born white, you have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can’t look at it. It’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want the status quo, people don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going be fixed.
I don’t just love sports — I’m obsessed with sports. And I am fairly certain that no white coach or player in the history of American sports has ever spoken with such clarity on white privilege as Popovich did right there. Period.
And this wasn’t the first time Popovich waded into the issues of race and racism in America. In an obscure Black History Month interview from this past February, he leaned in. “I think if people take the time to think about it,” Popovich said about racism, “I think it is our national sin.”
“If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage — educationally, economically, culturally, in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, or a neighborhood sense with laws, zoning, education,” he went on. “We have huge problems in that regard that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve. It’s a tough one because people don’t really want to face it.”
Popovich did not get here overnight. While he has spent the bulk of his life coaching and mentoring young black men, not all sports coaches have come this far. One thing NFL coaches and general managers have taught us is that physical proximity to blackness does not necessarily amount to understanding. On the other hand, Popovich has made a personal investment to understand what he’s talking about — he has suggested in his remarks that he spends some of his spare time reading about race theory. That may explain why it has taken so long for him to speak out like this.
However Popovich got here, his arrival is welcome.
In America, the primary voices calling out discrimination are its victims. Just as women tend to more frequently call out sexism and Muslims tend to be the leading voices against Islamophobia, the primary voices calling out racism are African-Americans. And I get that: For the objects of discrimination, calling it out isn’t merely about justice, it’s about survival.
But this is also why so little changes about the substance and systems of discrimination and bigotry in America. Until those who actually benefit most from racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of bigotry speak up and speak out, those systems are likely to remain in place. Popovich gets this. Now we need other white folks to get it, too.
Top photo: San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during an NBA basketball game on Feb. 26, 2017, in Los Angeles.