Gregg Popovich is not Sticking to Sports, but He's Not Saying Much Either

By Tully Corcoran
May 16, 2017, 1:00 PM EDT

Gregg Popovich does not think much of the president. This gives him something in common with about 60 percent of the country, and it gives him something new to talk about in the press, which must be a relief. When it comes to speaking to the press, Popovich is a bored man, and I don’t blame him.

Before Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs coach again went off on Donald Trump, calling him a cynic and a phony, and suggesting Trump sees this whole thing as a great big game show. You’ll recognize this as the most conventional possible take on Donald Trump, a criticism so readily available to anyone wishing to criticize Trump that most people don’t even bother making it anymore. It’s the political equivalent of observing that Ringo Starr was perhaps not the world’s most skilled drummer. And while I don’t know that you’d want to hire Popovich to write politics for The Atlantic, that’s also the big point here. Popovich is not a political pundit, which should make his punditry more significant, even if the content of that punditry is as banal as a halftime interview.

Inside the echo chamber, that is. Outside of it, these words barely even register as interesting, much less persuasive.

For those of us who work in the media business and spend every waking moment (and some non-waking ones) on Twitter, the coach of a professional sports team blasting the president creates a wave in our pond. Twitter these days bears a dull droning, on and on and on, day after day, about the president’s being this way or that way, or doing whatever it is he’s done that hour to de-stabilize the republic. This is unfortunate and exhausting, but generally accepted as a natural consequence of the times in which we live. If Rachel Maddow isn’t going to hammer away at Trump every day, then why even have a Rachel Maddow? Her viewers know they can come to her show to relax inside the cozy blanket of shared contempt. That’s her job. That’s the product she’s selling. As a result, when she rips Trump, there’s barely a ripple.

This is not the case with Popovich, and it’s safe to assume a lot of people would prefer he just “stick to sports,” in the parlance of our times. No matter your view on the president, you probably didn’t need a basketball coach’s help in forming it. Most fans like their escapism to remain escapist. And yet … the same idea is heard differently coming from a guy like Popovich, who is (a) not a pundit, (b) an Air Force veteran, and (c) one of the most respected coaches of all time, regardless of sport. Nobody’s ever accused him of being a snowflake. Popovich’s job has nothing to do with commenting on politics, which makes his choice to do so seem, if nothing else, authentic. It lends credibility to the idea that non-hysterical, non-masked citizens can have express serious concerns about the president’s fitness for the job, then put on a tie and go to work. While no single piece of discourse is likely to change anybody’s opinion, there is a reason we value discourse, and that reason is that, over time, it changes minds and increases understanding.

So, theoretically, there is value to this.

Practically, I seriously doubt it. Because what Popovich’s criticism of Trump did this weekend was what it always does. It bounced around on Twitter, a platform that serves about 10 percent of America’s 321 million people, and made it onto a bunch of sports sites. Go ahead and ask your mother-in-law about Pop’s comments. Or the guy behind the counter at the C-store. Or even your friend who likes sports. See if any of them even know what he said, much less have a response to it.

The advantage of being somebody like Gregg Popovich in a situation like this is the ability to use fame to advance a message that might otherwise get overlooked. But the idea that Donald Trump is cynical and selfish is not one that is having a hard time gaining traction in American society. This was what National Review wrote about him when he entered the race. And that’s William F. Buckley’s magazine.

The rub is not that Trump voters haven’t realized Donald Trump is cynical and selfish. They know that. Every American has known that for 30 years. The rub is that the temperament of the president is not among their political priorities. Neither Gregg Popovich nor anybody else is going to convince them it should be by grumbling it into a set of microphones just so he doesn’t have to answer another stupid question about momentum, no matter how gold the halo the sports media paints over his silver head.

Popovich is shouting into an echo chamber, and he’s not even shouting anything interesting. The president is a jerk. We get it. Now what?

Well, Game 2 is tonight.