To those who’ve watched the San Antonio Spurs play basketball, the sight of head coach Gregg Popovich exasperated is familiar enough to be drawn from memory. Arms either crossed or at his hips, depending on the day. Mouth slightly agape. Yelling, or worse, steely-eyed and silent. Head shaking incredulously from side-to-side as he searches for an explanation to what just unfolded on the court.
On Monday, that exasperation stemmed from an infinitely more important place. As demonstrators across the United States continue to protest racial injustice and acts of police brutality committed against Black people, Popovich looked to the White House and the nation’s president. And what he saw were not answers, but a failure of leadership.
“It’s so clear what needs to be done,” Popovich told Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. “We need a president to come out and say simply that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Just say those three words. But he won’t and he can’t. He can’t because it’s more important to him to mollify the small group of followers who validate his insanity.
“But it’s more than just Trump. The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help because that’s what leaders do. But he can’t do anything to put us on a positive path because he’s not a leader.”
As Popovich noted, U.S. governance is not designed to be a system wherein one person makes unilateral decisions for the entire country.
While the president has a significant say in crafting policy decisions — and the influence of Trump’s rhetoric and ideas cannot be discounted or downplayed — there are senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and members of the judicial system who all impact change. In Popovich’s view, many of them have come up short, too.
“It’s like what Lindsay Graham [senator from South Carolina] and Ted Cruz [senator from Texas] used to say when they had the courage to say it: He’s unfit,” Popovich said. “But they have chosen instead to be invisible and obsequious in the face of this carnage. In the end what we have is a fool in place of a president, while the person who really runs the country, Senator Mitch McConnell, destroys the United States for generations to come.”
Prior to president Trump’s election, both Graham and Cruz criticized Trump’s eligibility for the presidency. During the 2016 campaign, Graham called the future president a “kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office,” among other things. While Cruz called him a “pathological liar” who doesn’t understand the difference between the truth and lies.
Both have since become staunch supporters of the president. McConnell, the Republican senate majority leader from Kentucky who Popovich referenced, has said he is the “Grim Reaper” of Democrat policy ideas for his steadfast commitment to preventing those policy proposals from landing on the president’s desk.
“McConnell has destroyed and degraded our judicial system,” Popovich told Zarin. “He has tried to destroy health care. He’s destroyed the environment. He’s the master and Trump’s the stooge, and what’s funny is that Trump doesn’t even know it. Trump’s always wanted to be part of the in-group, but McConnell is an in-group of one and Trump plays the fool.”
Popovich has denounced Trump in the past. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Popovich compared the newly elected president to a “seventh- or eighth-grade bully” and condemned comments he made as “xenophobic, homophobic, racist and misogynistic.” The 71-year-old, five-time NBA champion has also openly reckoned with the privileges that come from being a white man. In 2017, when asked about using his platform to speak out about social issues, he said:
“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. …It’s hard to sit down and decide that, yes, it’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can’t look at it that way, because it’s too difficult.”
Popovich’s most recent comments, though, come after George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died last Monday night in police custody in Minneapolis. The incident, which was captured on video, showed Floyd pinned to the ground with his hands cuffed and Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin – who was identified as the primary officer in the video – with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes.
In the video, Floyd can be heard saying that he couldn’t breathe, and later paramedics are seen lifting an apparently non-responsive Floyd onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.
An independent autopsy has since found that Floyd’s death was “caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain.” After the graphic video circulated widely on social media, the four officers involved in the incident were fired and Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder. None of the other three officers face charges at this time.
Since Floyd’s death, protests have erupted across the U.S., calling for meaningful, systemic change to address police violence against Black people and racial inequality.
Though Popovich criticized that several protests turned violent and was “frustrated” by many of them appearing to lack organization, their necessity was not lost on him and he called for “more leadership” so that these “incredible mass demonstrations can’t be used by people for other means.”
“The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism and we’ve seen it all before but nothing changes,” Popovich said. “That’s why these protests have been so explosive. But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it. That also has to change.
“…It’s unbelievable. If Trump had a brain, even if it was 99 per cent cynical, he would come out and say something to unify people. But he doesn’t care about bringing people together. Even now. That’s how deranged he is. It’s all about him. It’s all about what benefits him personally. It’s never about the greater good. And that’s all he’s ever been.”