Trump passes on opportunity to criticize James at Ohio rally

In this July 30, 2018 file photo LeBron James listens to a question at a news conference after the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. President Donald Trump is turning his wrath on the basketball superstar. Trump tweeted late Friday, Aug. 3 that James was interviewed "by the dumbest man on television," CNN anchor Don Lemon, but that he "made Lebron look smart, which isn't easy to do."

Fifty-one years ago, Willie Horton drove toward the smoke. His Detroit Tigers teammates went home, as they were advised, and stayed away from the rioting. Horton couldn't. His city was burning. He didn't even change out of his uniform.

Now 75, he ponders again the question that he has grown old answering: Why? Why take ownership on July 23, 1967, when it was reasonable to expect him to be a good, privileged athlete and care only from afar? Why go into what he called "a war zone" armed with just celebrity and compassion? Why go into the black, suffocating smoke?

"That area was my paper route as a kid," Horton said during a recent interview. "I had to go over there and see what I can do. When there's a war going on in your community, there's only one choice: try to stop the war."

Horton parked his Ford as close to 12th Street and Clairmount as he could. He got out and stood on the vehicle. He saw familiar faces.

"Go home, Willie, we don't want you to get hurt," he remembers them shouting.

No, he told them. This isn't the way. And more than half a century later, the memory of a baseball player - with the Tigers' iconic Old English "D" on his jersey, over his heart - standing and preaching peace remains one of the Motor City's greatest baseball stories.

The act is also an embodiment for athlete activism that hasn't lost relevance. For all the debate and presidential Twitter taunts, current athletes refuse to be intimidated or have their desire to improve society trivialized. They see the smoke. They sense the urgent need for help in their communities. So there's only one choice: try to stop the war.

I keep thinking about Horton because I spoke to him several hours before President Donald Trump, in a tweet, implied LeBron James was stupid in response to James' criticism of the divider-in-chief during a CNN interview. Last Friday, Horton accepted a Sam Lacy Pioneer Award at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Detroit. He carried the same charismatic presence of the slugger who helped the Tigers win the 1968 World Series a year after Detroit had stopped burning.

I met Horton during a celebration of trailblazing athletes. That week, I had covered the opening of James's I Promise School for at-risk children in Akron, Ohio, which is one of the greatest recent examples of an athlete using his money and influence for good. Through his foundation, James has created a groundbreaking partnership with Akron Public Schools that, if successful, could elevate that entire school system by lifting from the bottom instead of ignoring it. The project is even more inspiring because James is actually working within the system, not around it, to make a difference. But now, because James had the nerve to say (accurately) that Trump is using sports to divide us, Trump wants to try to lure another outspoken African-American athlete into a mud-wrestling match.

To his credit, James has declined to engage in trash talk. In the past, before his CNN interview, James has called Trump a "bum" and made other strong remarks denouncing the president's governing approach. Now that James has left Ohio (swing state!) for the Los Angeles Lakers, Trump is going after the departed favorite son. It has sparked another round of national diversion as everyone weighs in on the gossipy feud.

But while Trump may have intended to cause a distraction and put James in his place, he hasn't flexed his power as much as he has transferred some of it to James. James has emerged from the scrum looking like the stronger, more self-assured and focused leader. Trump sought to belittle him. He wound up showing why mature and responsible athlete activists have become essential to American society, no matter how polarizing some of their actions may be.

With his bullying tactics, Trump wants to minimize the influence of black and/or socially aware athletes. He wants to punk them. But, sorry, only NFL owners roll over so easily.

No, people aren't rioting across America right now. But these are difficult, trying times. The issues that athletes most care about - unequal policing, gun violence and race and gender equality among them - need the megaphone that celebrity voices can provide. Sometimes, it feels like the soul of the country is at stake. Athletes haven't just been energized. They've been empowered. And they won't be dismissed simply because the president insults them.

James will tell you that, despite having an estimated net worth of $400 million, "the hardest thing for me is raising two African-American boys and an African-American daughter in today's society." Dissenters roll their eyes. How can a man so famous, so rich and so envied make that claim?

The question illuminates an important idea that few consider, according to Carl Suddler, an African-American history and sports history professor at Florida Atlantic University: Racial progress does not preclude racism. James has it as good as any NBA player ever, but someone still spray-painted the n-word on the front gate of his Los Angeles home last year.

"What happens is, you'll have people say things like, 'Jackie Robinson was experiencing real racism,' " Suddler said. "Or, 'I'm sure that what Jesse Owens and Jack Johnson experienced was way worse than today.' In a sense, sure, we have progressed, but racism is racism. There's no need to belittle the type of racism people face in 2018. You can't simply track the history of racial progress while ignoring that racism progresses, too. It didn't just die because oppressed people are making more money or not living in as much fear as before. There are two historical forces at work. You can't focus only on racial progress and ignore how racism is progressing."

In all aspects of life, you can't simply say, "Things are better. Stop complaining." It's more like, "Things are better, but they should get better with time. But we still have so far to go." Progress requires maintenance, too.

Horton told me about going for a walk in his neighborhood recently. A woman stared at him. He waved, assuming she was a fan. She gave him the middle finger. He was stunned, and as someone who tried to reason with rioters 51 years ago, there is not much that stuns him.

Such little things make him worry about society. But he also trusts that sports still have the power to heal, unify and change hearts. He has seen it. He has done it. He hopes today's athletes can inspire just the same.

"I'm part of a generation of athletes that had the lightbulb turned on," Horton said. "And I'm proud to have said, 'Yes, I see the light.' "

The light still shines. And after a long period of silence and indifference, athletes see it again. So they can't ignore the smoke.

Jerry Brewer is a sports columnist at The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2015 after more than eight years as a columnist with the Seattle Times.