Today is supposed to be a day for giving thanks, so let’s talk about one man who’s currently famous for refusing to do so.
I recently watched the entire twenty two minutes and change of Chris Cuomo trying to figure out why LaVar Ball won’t say “thank you” to Donald Trump for his role in getting Ball’s son, LiAngelo Ball, out of China.
The younger Ball was there with his UCLA team when he and two other players were arrested for shoplifting. Shoplifting in China is a more serious charge than it is here, and so the three players faced the possibility of several years in prison. Trump was visiting China as part of his recent tour of Southeast Asia, and took the opportunity to speak to China’s President Xi Jinping, who cited the conversation as one of the reasons he interceded on the players’ behalf.
The players thanked Trump for his intercession, but LaVar Ball has refused to do so. Trump himself responded through Twitter, insulting Ball and taking sole credit for getting his son out of a “long term prison sentence.”
But this article isn’t about Trump. It’s about Ball, someone CNN calls a “chest-pounding braggart” who is “widely ridiculed,” and a sitcom-length interview ostensibly intended to get Ball’s perspective.
The key question should have been: Why won’t you say thank you? But Cuomo treats it as a given that Ball should say thank you, that Trump’s intercession is the primary reason that his son isn’t spending the next five years in Chinese prison, and that it’s openly disrespectful to the President to not freely acknowledge that.
Despite Cuomo’s lack of interest in what should be the central question, Ball appears to offer at least four reasons.
1. Trump did the absolute least he could do and still say he’s the President.
When Cuomo is setting the background, he says that the boys’ release was not “an absolute certainty” until Trump got involved. Ball will dig into this later in the interview, but he first interrupts to question Trump’s commitment to the issue: “It wasn’t like he was in the US and said, ‘Okay, there’s three kids in China, I need to go over there and get them.’”
The reality is, Trump happened to be in China, so he asked the President he was already slated to meet with to look into this issue. Later, Ball points out that Trump didn’t truly secure a commitment from Xi; he “suggested” and Xi followed this suggestion. He also points out that Trump didn’t bring the players back on Air Force One.
What would have happened had Trump not already been on his way to China anyway? We can’t tell. Perhaps he really would have reached out to Xi in person or by phone. Perhaps he wouldn’t have done anything. I do think it’s a bit arrogant for Ball to suggest that Trump fly the players home, but I’m not really sure that was a serious request: Instead, I think it was meant to reinforce the idea that, regardless of what Trump may have done in other circumstances, he did the literal least he could do in this circumstance.
2. He didn’t ask for Trump’s help in the first place.
Cuomo would later admit to Seth Meyers on Late Night that his primary goal was to find out why Ball doesn’t feel that Trump’s help was crucial.
Ball clearly feels that he could have gotten his son and the other players out of China on his own. Whether Trump expedited the process is not central to Ball’s thinking.
The first suggestion of this comes two minutes into the interview, when Ball wonders why he should thank someone who can’t be bothered (in Ball’s perspective) to meet with or even address him directly: “I have to know what someone’s doing before I’m going to say thank you. … Now you come and shake my hand and meet me … and say, ‘You know what, maybe I can help you out.’ Let’s do it that way.”
Imagine you’re struggling to do something, but you’re confident you’ll figure it out yourself. Someone comes along and, rather than say, “Hey, do you need help?”, they just fix your problem. The first words they say to you directly are as they’re walking away, and it’s to shout sarcastically, “You’re welcome!” Is that somebody you’d want to thank?
3. Trump wants him to so badly.
As a teacher, it’s my job to help students. Some might say thanks, but it’s not expected. I do it because it’s part of my job.
This sort of intercession is the President’s job. Ball addresses this directly around the halfway mark (“If you help, you shouldn’t have to say anything. If I help somebody, I don’t walk around saying, ‘You know, I helped you now, give me some love!’ For real?”).
He also addresses it indirectly with a comment that Meyers would later show as one of the more bizarre parts, when he asks Cuomo is he’s ever thanked the Ob/Gyn who brought him into the world. The question out of context is indeed odd, but the point is: Do professional people doing their jobs normally go around demanding that people thank them for it?
He reiterates the point throughout the interview: Why is it this important to the President? Doesn’t he have better things to do than tweet about how a single person didn’t thank him for doing his job?
A lot of people are asking why Ball won’t say the words, but I think the much larger question is, why does the President need him to?
4. Lots of other people did so much more than Trump did.
From Ball’s perspective, he was doing his best as a parent and a private citizen in what was a very stressful situation, making slow but solid progress, and Trump came along without asking or being invited, “fixed” the problem with one casual conversation, and left again.
Ball refers to the various unnamed people on the ground who did things for his son and the other players. It is not clear who these people are, how much progress they were really making, and whether LiAngelo Ball would have spent time in prison. What’s clear is that the elder Ball feels they did more in terms of effort than Trump did.
It is clear, though, that Ball felt that they had made real, committed efforts, and that he doesn’t feel that Trump did much at all. Trump’s success was due far more to his position as President than anything he did.
Trump’s behavior shows a lack of respect to Ball, even without considering race. But there’s also a racial subtext in this interview. Ball seems to be carefully avoiding any overt comments about race. He does use the term “stay in your lane” at least twice, and at 19:30 he drags out a Stepin Fetchit voice to say “Thank you kindly, sir!”
All his life, LaVar Ball has worked to navigate the waters of systemic racism to keep his son, a black child, out of trouble. This was a minor stumble on that road, and he wanted the pride of having dealt with it on his own terms. Trump, not just a white man but active fuel on the fire of white supremacy, waved his hand and took credit for fixing the entire problem, and Ball understandably resents that.
Cuomo, meanwhile, is so caught up in his simple narrative about Ball’s recalcitrance that he doesn’t have the ability to hear this message. He spends much of the twenty minutes trying to hector Ball into saying thanks, and much less time truly listening to why Ball refuses to do so.
A large chunk of the interview is spent by two men, one white and one black, arguing about two words that appear to mean vastly different things for each man. For Cuomo, “thank you” is a casual phrase to be tossed around with ease, something Ball takes him to task for repeatedly. For Ball, “thank you” is a genuine display of gratitude that is granted when someone has done something clear, tangible, and valuable.
While most of the conversation has a spirit of surreal softness, things nearly turn nasty when the subject of fatherhood and role modeling comes up. Even though Ball is in the midst of lauding himself for being a committed father who has done his best to raise his son to behave properly and steer clear of the mistakes of his cohort, some of whom have done things far more serious than shoplifting, Cuomo accuses him of being a terrible role model for refusing this one act of superficial gratitude.
We should be spending less time trying to get LaVar Ball to say “thank you” and much more time trying to figure out why he won’t.
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