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Lebron James, accompanied by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, speaks at a rally at the Cleveland Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Lebron James, accompanied by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, speaks at a rally at the Cleveland Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Kelly: It’s time for America’s athletes to take a political stand Add to ...

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will host both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Donald Trump at the White House.

The NBA champions booked this appointment a week ago. Presumably, it was meant at the time to lightheartedly signal the incumbent’s gradual settling into post-political life. A decent photo op. A few zingers. Maybe Michelle would dunk on someone. All in good fun.

The visit has a rather different tenor today. It is suddenly full of anarchic possibility.

On Wednesday, America paused. The main actors lined up on either side of the country’s social and political chasm to say cordial things about each other. Few gave any sense that they really get it.

Hillary Clinton’s running mate and majordomo, Tim Kaine, was given the first chance to speak on behalf of the progressive left.

He sounded quite chipper in humiliating defeat. Well, in fairness, he had the sense to keep his day job while trawling for a better one.

In a rambling introduction, Kaine quoted Langston Hughes and William Faulkner. He referenced a coffee klatch he’d had with “Hillary and Bill, and with Chelsea and Marc, and with [Clinton’s grandchildren] Charlotte and Aidan.”

He might as well have taken the stage in a top hat and monocle, so redolent was this sort of talk of the elitism and inbreeding that Trump voters (correctly) believe typifies the establishment. The folksy tone, the upper-class blandishments, the whiplash return to business as usual: no wonder the Democratic Party is in tatters.

If someone is going to lead a peaceful insurrection against the new president, it’s not going to be the people in charge. Their fight is done. They’re returning to the real work of government – self-interested compromise, with occasional outraged bleating for public consumption.

If one half of America wants someone to express their dissatisfaction, they must look lower on the Cultural Elite org chart.

During the Reagan era – the last rich vein of leftist outrage unfettered by war – artists led this charge. I have no strong feelings about the Great Communicator, other than a warm glow when I think of all the SoCal skate punk he inspired. It’s no coincidence that in the time since – as America moved from one featureless and generally inoffensive leader to another – music stopped mattering.

Despite all the bile at either edge, the past couple of decades have been a good time for popular centrists. Stars, they keep reminding everyone, are just like us. Occasionally, they’ll latch on to a cause, but only long after it’s been accepted deep in the mainstream bosom. Or at least the Spotify-subscribing, reality-TV watching, film-sequel-loving mainstream.

This was nowhere truer than in professional athletics. And why not? During the time he was the most recognized man on Earth, why in God’s name would Michael Jordan have taken a stand on any single thing, no matter how obvious or easy? Because while some people may be right and others wrong, all of them buy running shoes.

In the 90s and 00s, it was hard to credit an ancient figure like Muhammad Ali. His professional approach – putting principles ahead of paydays – seemed so quaint that what had once roiled a country felt quirky in retrospect. Almost charming.

It doesn’t seem charming on Wednesday. It feels profoundly vital. America should be asking, “Who are our Alis now?”

It won’t be artists. The United States no longer has any who can effectively protest on its behalf. They’re all too busy navigating the landmines of identity politics while trying to figure out how to turn a million YouTube views into a few bucks. Fat living and a general cowardice has drained the American arts of its vitality.

What the country has left are its sportsmen and women.

They have the stage – nightly, in many cases. They have the audience – the last one that gathers in real time. They have the money - the best of them are functionally corporations. Their reach is unlimited - as such, so is their responsibility.

They also have the one character bonafide that cannot be assailed from either right or left – they are self-evidently products of a meritocracy. No one ever ran for the all-star team because her husband/brother/father once made it.

A few American athletes have been lightly banging political pots recently. Though much has been made of it, it hasn’t amounted to anything. Colin Kaepernick took a knee; LeBron James hosted a rally; Ali was prepared to go to prison. One of these things is not like the other.

Well, what are they willing to do now? Now that the ideas they’ve been protesting have been made flesh and put in charge?

On Thursday, James and his teammates have two choices during their visit to Trump’s future home. They can do what everyone else has done – go along to get along. Say noncommittal things about respecting the office, if not the man.

That’s the smart business play. It would be in keeping with recent history and will be greeted from all sides as showing “class” – a slippery synonym for protecting your own neck.

(When asked about the election on Wednesday, intermittently outspoken Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook took a variation of this route: “I didn’t vote for Trump, I’ll tell you that much. That’s all I’m going to say.” If Westbrook thinks he’s speaking truth to power, someone needs to buy him a dictionary.)

The Cavs could do that – nothing. Or they could smile for the cameras and skulk about later on social media, trying to sound conflicted. That would be worse.

Or they could light a metaphoric fire. They could say something that caused real offence, something that might actually have repercussions beyond tut-tutting and a $50,000 fine. It would have to be a spontaneous outburst in order to be effective.

That’d be the punk rock thing to do. And coming from the head man in the sports business – not just basketball, but all of it – that sort of boldness could be infectious.

It might not change anything. I doubt Ronald Reagan ever heard, or heard of, the Dead Kennedys or Suicidal Tendencies. But it would show that at least one group of American elites aren’t going to roll over for the next four years in return for a paycheque and a presidential pat on the head.

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