The social role of the professional athlete has changed more in the past year than it has in decades. Gone are the years when professional athletes can simply show up in stadiums, sell sneakers and quietly return home after each game. If anything, 2016 has become the year of the athlete-activist, and the year in which many of America’s most influential sports heroes have found their voices.
From Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James, athletes have realized that their leadership roles extend far beyond their performances on the field or the court.
In a November 2015 interview with National Public Radio, National Basketball Association legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ripped Michael Jordan for his decision to remain politically neutral throughout his playing career.
“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Jordan. “He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”
During the 1990s, a player of Jordan’s status could have been forgiven for refusing to engage with social issues and for protecting his brand. Now, just two decades down the road, we have come to a point where that sort of thinking couldn’t be further from reality.
No athlete has embodied the transition from brand ambassador to social icon more than LeBron James. Though James has spent the majority of his career chasing Jordan’s legacy as a basketball player, he has already eclipsed Jordan’s impact in the world of politics and social advocacy. When Eric Garner was choked to death by New York Police Department officers in 2014, James arrived to his next game against the Brooklyn Nets wearing a T-shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe,” Garner’s final words which became a rallying cry against the rampant and repugnant displays of police brutality across the United States. In spite of his precarious position in the public eye as basketball’s greatest modern superstar, James has stepped forward in moments of intense social crisis to stand as a voice for justice.
The difficulty of James’ position cannot be overstated. He is possibly the most famous athlete in America and his continued involvement in politics and social advocacy may preclude him from reaching the universal appeal of a player like Jordan. But I also think that James cares more about inner-city kids from Akron, Ohio than he does about selling basketball shoes. When James teamed up with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards show this summer to deliver a speech about violence, advocacy and discrimination, the Cleveland talisman called upon other athletes to follow his example and to use their fame to help improve our country.
If anything, the speech James and his friends delivered is a clear break from the political neutrality of the Jordan era. Athletes at the highest level are realizing that they have a duty beyond simply providing entertainment. Little by little, America has watched LeBron James find his voice.
James’ transition toward advocacy and involvement reached an apex this week, when he wrote an op-ed piece for Business Insider endorsing Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 for president. Where Michael Jordan would never have dreamt of taking an action like that during his playing career, James stood up and spoke his mind.
“There are a lot of people who want to tell kids who grew up like me and looked like me that they just don’t have anything to look forward to,” James wrote in his article. “That’s dead wrong … Opportunities, a support system and a safety net for kids in poverty or kids in single-parent households shouldn’t be limited to those lucky enough to be blessed with athletic talent.”
James’ willingness to openly speak about the black struggle in this country and his refusal to stay sidelined during one of the most important and divisive elections in modern American history reveals an incredible depth of character and sets a positive example that I hope others will have the courage to follow.
Regardless of how you might feel about LeBron’s positions, they are informed by the challenging experience of growing up as an inner-city black kid in this country. Bear in mind that when James speaks out about police violence and discrimination, he speaks knowing that he or his own children could just as easily fall victim. Realize that when James endorses Clinton, he is doing so with the knowledge that her alternative, Donald Trump, has repeatedly disgraced himself through displays of open and unapologetic racism.
Even with all his money and fame, James still has to live with the daily struggle of being black in America, and his actions reflect an understanding that he has a duty, however unfair that onus might be, to help ensure that kids don’t have to become the greatest basketball players alive just to get up out the hood. His legacy is bigger than a pair of sneakers and weightier than the three championship rings he’s now able to slip onto his fingers. LeBron has gone beyond Jordan and beyond many great athletes in becoming both an advocate off the court and a star on it. As far as legacy goes, nobody can touch that.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .