With Donald Trump’s travel ban at the forefront of everyone’s minds and much uncertainty ahead, prominent figures in the world of sports are speaking out more than any time in recent history.
TORONTO — If you ever wanted to hear what athletes think about sensitive political issues, the kind of hot-button topics that commonly would have been no-go zones even a few months ago, this is a golden era.
However the fast-moving policy train that is the Donald Trump presidency ultimately shakes out — and whatever you think about it — at the very least we will likely have a greater insight into how many prominent sports figures think and what they stand for than at any time in recent sports history.
In Toronto, with the news of the fatal shooting of six worshippers by a terrorist at a mosque outside Quebec City thick in the air, politics never seemed so personal.
Typically, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry is strategically vanilla when he addresses the media. Long, drawn out chitchats aren’t his thing. That takes precious time and Lowry tends to be an “on-with-the-next-thing” guy.
But as the world — and sports’ corner of it — tries to absorb what a Trump presidency means now and in the near future, Lowry couldn’t have been clearer about his views on the U.S. travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations.
"I think it’s bull—-. I think it’s absolute bull—-," he said. "Our country is the country of the home of the free. For that to happen is bull—-. I won’t get into it too deeply but, personally, I think it’s bull—-."
Someone hoping to air his views on television asked if Lowry would share is view but without swearing.
"No, not at all," the 11-year veteran and gold medallist with the U.S. Olympic team said. "Y’all have to bleep that out. That’s how I feel about it. If you use it, you use it. I’m sure you can bleep it out.
"It’s a real bad situation. It makes the country — I bleed red, white, and blue. I was born and raised there. I have always been taught to treat everyone the same. It’s a difficult time for my country right now and it’s sad."
Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who came to the U.S. on a student visa from Nigeria, has devoted his time outside of the team and his family to building up his Giants of Africa foundation. The aim is to use basketball to reach young people in a number of African countries, often with a goal of bringing otherwise unidentified talent to the U.S. for school.
He is in the midst of planning a camp in Sudan for the first time. Several players from the East African country have made it to the NBA, including Los Angeles Lakers veteran Luol Deng and rookie Thon Maker of the Milwaukee Bucks, who played high school basketball outside Toronto last year.
Sudan is one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East named in Trump’s travel ban.
"I’m finding it difficult to absorb some of this stuff from the ban to everything that’s going on," said Ujiri, visibly upset. "Being someone who travels around the world, you meet a lot of people, especially youth that I deal with and work with around the world. I think it’s just ridiculous what’s going on out there.
"We had planned to do a basketball camp in Sudan. When you go and do those things or even in [the NBA program] Basketball Without Borders we have kids that come from all over the world. What does that mean? Are we lying to those kids when we say we are giving them hope or teaching them or going to help them grow or give them opportunity? We’re outright lying to them now. I just don’t get it. It’s mind-boggling. I just don’t get it.
"Luol Deng ate in my house when he came to play us here. He’s from Sudan. What does all this mean?
"It’s ridiculous in my opinion."
A number of players and coaches have been outspoken in their opposition to the Trump candidacy and administration. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr’s father, a prominent U.S. academic, was assassinated by the Muslim terrorist group Hezbollah in 1984 in Lebanon. He has criticized the travel ban. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has been consistently outspoken regarding Trump as has Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, who condemned the travel ban and hearkened back to some of the darker moments in recent history.
“We’re getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps, of Hitler registering the Jews — that’s where we’re heading. It’s just fear-mongering and playing to a certain base of people that have some built-in prejudices that aren’t fair,” Van Gundy said. “There’s no reasonable reason to do it."
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey grew up poor in the southern U.S. At age 59, he is old enough to have started school in the segregation era and remembers first-hand the sting of prejudice.
"It’s scary because it kind of reminds you about what happened back in the ‘60s, when I was growing up," he said. "Even though it’s different issues, it resembles that in a lot of different ways. A little bit more sophisticated, but it’s similar. And it’s a slippery slope. For every action, there’s a cause and effect and a reaction by other people, so we have to be careful. Again, I’m a U.S. citizen, a proud U.S. citizen, but we have to be careful how we’re handling our business in the states."
The concerns of Lowry, Ujiri and Casey were echoed across the world of sports on Monday as the place where many seek a breather from the stresses of the “real” world couldn’t ignore the tumult that seems to coming in waves.
Toronto FC captain and U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley made news when he laid out his opposition to Trump and the travel ban in an interview with prominent soccer journalist Grant Wahl and later expanded his views on an Instagram post.
Sports figures speaking about politics has often been taboo, something they avoided or kept private. As New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — a friend of Trump’s — said in Houston when asked for his thoughts on what’s happened the past few days: "What’s going on in the world? In what sense? I haven’t paid much attention to what’s going on. I’m just a positive person, and I just want the best for everybody. I’m just not talking politics at all."
But Brady seems like the glaring exception. At certain moments politics seem like everything and sports figures, just like regular people, are trying to makes sense of things that are moving fast with no clear direction.
For those fascinated at the prospect of politics and sports intersecting, there is no doubt: we are living in interesting times.