In a wide-ranging interview with E.S.P.N. that aired in February, N.B.A. stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant discussed several social and political issues. At one point, James said of President Trump, he “doesn’t understand the people, and really don’t give a [expletive] about the people.” Shortly thereafter, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized James on the air, targeting his lack of college education. After calling James’s comments “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical,” she said “[t]his is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the N.B.A. And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid a hundred-million dollars a year to bounce a ball.” She concluded by saying “[y]ou’re great players but no one voted for you. Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.” Ingraham, whom no one voted for, inappropriately dismissed James’s comments because of who he is. LeBron James’s opinions should not be believed or disbelieved because he is a basketball star. The value of an idea should neither increase nor decrease due to the speaker’s identity, fame, wealth, or occupation.
Ingraham’s commentary was inappropriate in a number of ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, her entire argument was simply a long-winded dismissal of James without engaging with the substance of what he said. It is one of the most common and least productive tactics in political discourse. Beyond that, it is harmful to suggest that only educated people or people who have chosen careers in politics are qualified to voice their opinions on political issues. LeBron James gets to vote—why should he be barred from voicing his opinion on the issues he considers when voting? The idea that the value of people’s speech is positively correlated with their level of education or chosen career is repugnant to a representative democracy. The Constitution guarantees a republican form of government. Inherent in the right to choose representatives is the right to form and express opinions about candidates, public officials, and issues.
Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, is a fine example of a person who has chosen a career in sports but has significant personal experience in politics, particularly international relations. Steve Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, was a political science professor who specialized in the Middle East. He taught at and was president of the American University of Beirut until he was assassinated by the terrorist group Islamic Jihad in 1984. As a result of his father’s career, Steve Kerr, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, grew up across the Middle East and attended school in Beirut and Cairo. Would Ingraham tell Kerr to “shut up and coach”? While his experiences don’t necessarily mean his opinions are more likely to be right, it does demonstrate that he is a three-dimensional person—not just a basketball coach.
But LeBron James and Steve Kerr’s fame does not mean their ideas have any greater merit either. That would be a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority.” This fallacy involves using a person’s authority or expertise as evidence in support of a particular argument. The greater the distance between the area of expertise and the argument it purportedly supports, the more egregious the logical error. In this case, it would be wrong to argue that what James said is true because he, a basketball star, said it. However, that does not mean his political views should be disregarded because he is not a political expert.
After making her comments, Ingraham was heavily criticized by many, including some who believed her remarks were a racist attempt to silence . Following an initial statement defending her words, Ingraham invited James to appear on her show. She should be commended for inviting James to participate in a discussion, but her initial dismissive reaction embodied trends harmful to robust political discourse. While it is important to avoid the logical fallacy of appeal to authority, it is also important to remember that everyone is entitled to an opinion. And those opinions should be contested based on their merits—not on the identity of the speaker. Ingraham failed to engage James’s views beyond saying that she disagreed with them, and to the extent that we do the same, we degrade the public political discourse.