Barack Obama spoke to an ESPN audience from North Carolina A&T State University on Tuesday night, addressing the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, activism in sports, and historically-black colleges.
The sports analogies, like a citizen’s vote in Obama’s adopted hometown, came early and often.
“We all get knocked down in life,” the president informed the intimate gathering. “The question is: How do you respond? Do you get back up after getting knocked down?” He urged the students to “learn from defeats, thereby rendering them temporary.” He pointed to his loss in a Chicago congressional race during the 1990s as an event that humbled him.
The president credited Title IX with American women winning more medals than American men at Rio and cited Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela as inspirations. He referenced a poster of Dr. J from his youth and called Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe “transformational” athletes in their very different means of getting a point across.
But what he didn’t say spoke louder than what he did. He mentioned neither Colin Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling for the national anthem nor the NCAA puling 2017 basketball tournament games from the city where he spoke because of North Carolina’s law restricting multiple-occupancy public restrooms in state buildings to people of the sex indicated on the entrance.
President Obama cited discrimination and the criminal-justice system as roadblocks to full participation in American life. He declared that America gets stronger once it utilizes everyone’s talents.
“When you started getting black ball players in baseball, baseball became better,” the president explained by way of metaphor. “When you started getting black ball players in basketball, basketball became a lot better.”
The product of private-school and Ivy League education defended his record against a somewhat pointed question on his administration’s funding of historically-black colleges by blaming state legislatures for “funding prisons but not funding schools.” He encouraged a student activist to aim to make specific demands rather than merely to raise awareness. The president noted his administration’s efforts to compel police departments to allow “independent investigations” to avoid malfeasance by cops from “being swept under the rug,” for “training and hiring…done in a way that encourages the de-escalation of confrontation,” to highlight “protecting and serving” for law enforcement instead of “keeping a lid on things.”
Juxtaposing the conversational tone in the room were several confrontational ESPN-produced vignettes highlighting black activists, athletes and otherwise. Host Stan Verrett stridently spoke of how far Americans have come and have to go “in the fight for social justice.” The president in merely encouraging the mostly student audience to vote, rather than to vote this way or that way, kept the discussion mostly away from current controversies. While the vibe became heavy when discussing the history of the civil rights movement, the president mostly kept matters light.
“I might also just take your job at SportsCenter,” he informed Verrett of his post-presidency plans at the hour-plus program’s conclusion. “I think I could do a pretty good job.”