The importance of honor: Trump, sports and the media
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The importance of honor: Trump, sports and the media

September 25, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump suggests NFL players who ‘disrespect’ flag should be fired; league, athletes respond

President Donald Trump suggested at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday that NFL players who “disrespect” the American flag should be fired, and on Saturday he tweeted that players “should stand for the National Anthem.” Also on Saturday, he said on Twitter that Stephen Curry of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors was not invited to visit the White House.

At the Alabama rally held for Senate candidate Luther Strange, who is running in a special GOP primary election, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now… He is fired.”

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the Star Spangled Banner, saying he did not want to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Since then, other players have done similar acts.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to Trump’s comments, issuing a statement Saturday morning that said, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.” Two NFL owners, John Mara and Steve Tisch, issued similar statements.

Also on Saturday, Trump said on Twitter he was withdrawing the “great honor” of a White House invitation from Curry. The Warriors had said the team would vote on whether to attend; Curry had said he would vote against going. Curry later responded to a question about the tweet by saying, “That’s not what leaders do,” and NBA player LeBron James tweeted in response to Trump’s tweet, saying Curry “already said he ain’t going!”

It is a tradition for the president to invite championship teams to visit the White House, according to The Washington Post. Other professional athletes have declined invitations to the White House in the past, including NFL players Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, and James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 and 2009.

Distortion Highlights

  • This weekend, degrading exchanges among some of the most influential figures in the country became national news.
  • The media compounded the problem by adding its own bias and opinion, giving an already public platform even more force and reach.
  • There’s a deeper problem. Read why disparaging or dishonorable communication is a major challenge of our time.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Full-throated ire

    President Trump turned professional sports into a political battleground Friday night into Saturday, directing full-throated ire toward African American athletes who have spoken out against him and prompting a sharp rebuttal from the National Football League and several prominent sports figures. (The Washington Post)

  • Ensnared and agitated

    In a span of roughly 12 hours, as the sports world would typically be gearing up for college football and baseball’s pennant races, Trump ensnared and agitated the most powerful sports league in North America and angered NBA superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James. (The Washington Post)

  • Explode across the sports landscape

    It was only a matter of time before the racial reaction embodied by Trump’s presidency would explode across the sports landscape. (HuffPost)

  • Volatility

    Many players felt it would be difficult to organize a leaguewide protest on short notice, especially because Trump’s volatility made the situation tenuous. (The Washington Post)

  • Racially Tinged

    For years as a private citizen, Trump was the most vocal proponent of the falsehood that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, a racially tinged conspiracy theory that thrived in fringe corners of the right. (The Washington Post)

  • Backlash

    The backlash is fueled by the belief that, in return for million-dollar salaries and the fragile affections of many white fans, black sports figures are required to sacrifice their basic humanity and their right to participate in civic society. (The HuffPost)

  • Intensifying Spat

    President Donald Trump and the sports world engaged in an intensifying spat on Saturday after he called for National Football League owners to fire players who protest during the U.S. national anthem and disinvited a National Basketball Association star from a White House visit. (Reuters)

  • Simmering Tension

    Trump’s veering into sports Friday night comes after months of simmering tension between high-profile sports figures and the president. (The Washington Post)

  • Slammed

    After Trump said he rescinded Curry’s invitation, LeBron James slammed Trump on Twitter. (The Washington Post)

    James jumped to his Twitter account on Saturday morning to slam the president, saying, “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! (Breitbart)

Professional sports aren’t perfect, but they represent some of humanity’s best qualities: team building, perseverance, loyalty and, above all, good sportsmanship. So when the dishonor that’s been increasingly common in U.S. politics reached this area, the impact may have been more noticeable.

What’s the more visible problem?

Trump’s disparaging comments over the weekend—namely, his suggestion that an NFL owner should fire a “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.” If the president’s objective is to respect the American flag, he could do so by inspiring people rather than shaming them. Choosing the latter approach set a precedent for others to follow with more dishonor.

What’s the less visible problem?

James’ and other players’ rebukes, and the way the media reported on them, both of which were also either dishonorable or promoted dishonor.

  • LeBron James responded to Trump’s tweet about Stephen Curry by calling him “U bum,” and saying “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
  • Other influential figures posted similar messages on Twitter, such as NFL player Lesean McCoy’s, “It’s really sad man … our president is a asshole,” and singer-songwriter John Legend’s, “Perhaps it’s not a great honor while your stench is there.”

Why is all of this a problem?

Because disparaging someone is violent — it’s demeaning to their personhood and character, and it’s irreversible. No matter how well you know the person who’s being disparaged, and even if the claims are false, you can’t “un-know” the insults once they’re out in the open. If people are accused of doing something wrong, it may be better to state in data-based terms what they’ve done, rather than attack their character.

With these comments, Trump damaged the way we view Curry and certain football players, and James damaged the way we view Trump and the office of the presidency. It’s not to say Trump’s own conduct didn’t do damage to his reputation and his position, but for James to have done the same in return doesn’t right the wrong, even if his defense of Curry was well intended. We may never be able to think about this president or future ones the same way again. And we may never be able to think about these or other sports stars just for their athletic merits. These are effects we cannot take back.

What’s the media’s role?

The media further compounded the problem by adding its own bias and opinion, giving an already public platform even more force and reach through its coverage. HuffPost, for example, portrayed Trump as an adversary to black sports figures in general, which may be an exaggeration:

In the span of less than two weeks, the president of the United States has used his bully pulpit three times to attack prominent black sports figures. That is a remarkable and improper use of presidential power. But it is not at all surprising that sports figures have become the focus of Trump’s ire.

It may be reasonable to view Trump’s statements as a “remarkable and improper use of presidential power,” but it’s still opinion. And saying his comments are “not at all surprising” is also opinion, and portrays Trump negatively. Moreover, it also attempts to right the dishonor with dishonor, which doesn’t work.

The Washington Post similarly suggested it’s a race issue, but it also establishes a pattern (“once again”) and implies Trump isn’t likely to change direction:

Once again, Trump has placed himself squarely at the center of a wrenching national debate over race. But unlike past presidents who have given at least some voice to a desire to bridge the historic divides in American life, Trump seems eager to lean into those disputes.

Opinions like these typecast the president as the type of person who’s “eager” and therefore likely to “lean into” these types of disputes. Maybe Trump will continue down this road, or maybe he’ll take a different direction — in either case, his actions will speak for themselves. But for the media to plant the seed that it’ll go this way is jumping to conclusions.

Reuters also exaggerated the events by portraying them as Trump “clash[ing]” with the “sports world,” and Breitbart came to Trump’s defense but dishonored James in the process by invalidating his perspective and saying he’s “wrong.” In all four cases, the media’s added bias and opinion mask the problem and promote further dishonor. How could journalists report exchanges like these in an honorable way, so as not to add fuel to the fire?

Why should anyone care?

If condoned or undetected, dishonor can spread like wildfire. Trump attacks Curry and the NFL, James attacks Trump, media outlets attack either Trump or the athletes, readers and fans attack any of the parties involved, and on and on it goes. Just look at some of the comments on Twitter or Facebook over the weekend.

Like violence, disparaging someone can breed more of the same, unless we’re aware of what’s being done and its damaging effects, and are willing to disrupt it. The problem with dishonor is it’s less apparent compared to other forms of violence, so it often goes undetected and, in some areas of society, it’s become acceptable. Many people are affected by abuses and criminal acts, from grade school bullying to international warfare, but all of us are affected by dishonorable communication. Living in the age of information, it’s a major challenge of our time. And whether we can prevent it isn’t determined by a single event, but by our daily conduct.

The less we’re aware of and identify dishonor, the less we understand it and the less likely we are to stop it. Dishonor also limits our ability to see what’s good in our world. Imagine what the world would look like if principles like honor, graciousness and respect for others — even one’s opponent — no longer mattered.

Good sportsmanship offers the world so much. It’s time it makes a comeback.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 60% Spun

  • 63% Spun

  • 65% Spun

  • 69% Spun


The Washington Post

“President Trump turned professional sports into a political battleground Friday night into Saturday, directing full-throated ire toward African American athletes who have spoken out against him and prompting a sharp rebuttal from the National Football League and several prominent sports figures.”

Trump made comments and posted on Twitter, as described in our Raw Data section.


“It was only a matter of time before the racial reaction embodied by Trump’s presidency would explode across the sports landscape.”

No facts here.


“When Hill pointed out the plain fact that Trump is a white supremacist whose presidency is based on white supremacy, she knew what she was talking about.”

Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

“We don’t stand for basically what our president . . . the things that he said and the things that he hasn’t said in the right terms that we won’t stand for it,” Curry said. (The Washington Post)

Breitbart doesn’t provide Curry’s statements about his position on visiting the White House, which would help readers better understand Trump’s decision to withdraw the invitation and James’ response to it. The above is an excerpt of Curry’s response, in which he went on to mention Kaepernick, who said, after he sat during the national anthem, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Stated reasons for other athletes’ protests. (Missing from all outlets)

None of the outlets analyzed cite statements from players who have not stood during the national anthem, explaining why they did so. Without this information, it may be more difficult to understand the players’ motivations and how this relates to Trump’s comments.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Implies Trump is “attacking” African-American athletes because of their race.

Trump’s comments could be racially motivated, but HuffPost doesn’t provide evidence of it. Also, it’s disparaging to suggest he has no restraint and “can’t stop” the attacks.

Implies this will be ongoing, and it dramatizes and possibly romanticizes the events.

This headline gives a perspective of what happened with a future implication, without actually saying what happened. It also suggests the players will triumph.

Frames these events as Trump abusing friendships.

This headline focuses on possible implications of Trump’s actions, rather than the actions themselves. It does nothing to inform.  


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Trump’s to blame in this situation — his comments were an affront to athletes and the sports industry. Or, according to Breitbart, Trump isn’t to blame — if anything, LeBron James is.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Responsibility is rarely one-sided. While Trump’s actions were dishonorable, other parties engaged in a similar fashion, including athletes, media outlets and some of the experts they cited. Addressing an issue or a behavior with the same behavior only furthers the problem. The fallacy of “fighting fire with fire” is something none of the media outlets addressed.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Colin Kaepernick began sitting during the national anthem before football games in August 2016, during last year’s pre-season, while a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. On Aug. 27, after sitting the day before during the 49ers’ third preseason game, Kaepernick told NFL Media:  

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color … To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

On Aug. 28, Kaepernick spoke to the media and said the following:

I’ll continue to sit … I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.

On Sept. 1, 2017, Kaepernick knelt rather than sat during the national anthem, after which he said:

As far as taking a knee tonight, Eric [Reid] — as well as myself — had a long conversation with Nate Boyer, who is a military vet … And we were talking to him about, “How can we get the message back on track? And not take away from the military. … But keep the focus on what the issues really are.” As we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee, because there are issues that still need to be addressed. And it was also a way to try to show more respect to the men and women that fight for this country.

After these events, other athletes have either sat or knelt during the national anthem. Some of them, like Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane and Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas, have mentioned Kaepernick when citing their reasons for sitting or kneeling during the anthem.