In 2018, Laura Ingraham viciously attacked LeBron James’ political sentiments on Fox News. LeBron James was previously part of an interview with ESPN broadcaster Cari Champion and Kevin Durant, in which they discussed personal struggles and black identity. At some point, LeBron expressed his opinion on former president Trump, stating: “Trump doesn’t give a f-- about the people”, and "The No. 1 job in America, the appointed person, is someone who doesn't understand the people”. To which Laura Ingraham responded by saying that his comments were barely intelligible and were ungrammatical. She concluded her message to LeBron with the line: “Shut up and dribble.”
Yet rather than do as she says, LeBron’s involvement in politics and the BLM community only grew stronger. He unabashedly supported kneeling during the national anthem, relentlessly criticized the Trump administration, and without fail, continued to use his Instagram platform to raise awareness of discriminatory police violence.
An example of his Instagram platform involved a picture of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck on one side and the other of Kaepernick kneeling for the anthem. The caption of which stated: “Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you??”
LeBron, along with Kaepernick are amongst the most popular athlete-activists. But what makes LeBron special is his aptitude at his sport. LeBron is among the greatest basketball players of all time, if not the greatest, with millions of fans and cameras focused on him. On the other hand, Kaepernick doesn’t come near to etching out a spot in the top 5 quarterbacks. Yet rather than only use his immense platform for commercial success, James uses it as a vessel for BLM, and racial awareness. Despite this, LeBron’s activism is still underappreciated in its bravery, sensitivity, and necessity.
The Decline Of The Athlete-Activist
Muhammad Ali is arguably the greatest athlete-activist of all time. His championship in the ring and his championship of black power made him a defining cultural force of the 80s. His unashamed criticism of the Vietnam War and racial stereotypes brought profound awareness to issues. However, Muhammad Ali was in ranks with other athlete-activists like basketball players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, or Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
This activism, however, died down in the 90s with the conclusion of the 80s Civil Rights Movement. In fact, activism was actively suppressed. In 1992, Chicago Bulls player Craig Hodges brought a letter for President Bush expressing his discontent with the administration’s handling of minorities. Craig even criticized Michael Jordan for not using his platform to raise awareness. After that visit, Hodges was kicked out of the NBA despite being an excellent shooting guard who led the league in 3-point percentage 3 times for a championship team.
There are a few reasons behind this deficiency: social issues at the time were perceived as less widespread, athletes had a higher focus on athletic accomplishments, and athletes feared financial penalties, especially the latter. Many athletes sought to acquire lucrative sponsorships and didn’t want to risk losing their sponsorships or buyers over political gestures, as Michael Jordan puts it: “Republicans buy sneakers too”.
The Revival Of The Athlete-Activist and Lebron James
The point is that athlete activism hasn’t been a trend from the 90s to the 2000s. It has only recently started to come back after the death of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the BLM movement.
What makes LeBron James unique is how quick he was to participate in this revival. LeBron James wasn’t afraid to use his platform when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. Rather than stay silent, James, Dwayne Wade, and the Miami Heat posed with hoodies up and eyes down in a photo that was later tweeted by LeBron. In addition, in 2014, LeBron, Kyrie, and 4 Nets players on the opposing team wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to raise awareness of Eric Garner’s death.
LeBron may not be the first athlete to pursue activism in the 2010s. He barely raised awareness in his NBA years before 2012. But he was among the first batch who weren’t afraid to speak out on racial issues since the inception of BLM. And since then, LeBron has been active in using his status and social media to protest issues. In 2014, LeBron spoke out against the racist remarks of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. In 2015, he expressed frustration over the death of a Cleveland infant by gunfire over Twitter. In 2017, James supported the trend of kneeling during the national anthem, stating that he “salutes” the NFL for its protest despite the attack from Trump. LeBron’s willingness to use his powerhouse brand to talk about controversial issues, especially since the beginning, makes his contribution something to be admired.
The Significance of Lebron’s Voice
In a study by Danielle Coombs and David Cassilo in 2017 that analyzes his media presence, they discovered a few frames that measure how important LeBron’s voice is to contemporary activism. LeBron’s voice subjects itself to higher expectations than other athletes and seeks to use sport as a way to not polarize politics but build community
After the shooting of Tamir Rice, LeBron James faced immense scrutiny from the media for not speaking up about the issue immediately. His refusal to address the issue was a source of immense criticism and was seen as unusual by the media and activists. In fact, a popular hashtag circulated that aimed to get James to sit out a game to protest the Rice shooting: #NoJusticeNoLebron.
This hashtag went viral, in an attempt to convince Lebron to speak out on the issue. The fact that the media and fans expected LeBron to sit out a game in protest and use his voice just shows how much he matters to the field of activism. And that voice only matters so much because of how much LeBron positions himself to speak out on political issues and support activism.
Yet, despite LeBron’s sometimes polarizing positions, he always seeks to frame the basketball court as a place where people can unite but still protest. His voice seems to try to reconcile the basketball court as a place where racial politics can be acknowledged and also a place where people can meet ground on it. This can be seen when James encouraged the city of Cleveland to: “ … use our excitement or whatever passion that we have for our sport tomorrow, for the game tomorrow night” in the wake of the acquittal of the officer who shot Tamir Rice.
Lebron’s statement can be seen as a way to distract people from the injustice, but can also be a considerate move to stem the turbulence in his city by using the love of the sport of basketball. The mere fact that LeBron is using his influence to try to calm the tension in Cleveland without the financial need to, displays how sensitive he is to the outside community and how powerful his voice is in black politics. Not many other athletes have the platform or the desire to do so.
The Necessity of Athletes’ Voices
LeBron James is uncommon in that not many other professional athletes command the same greatness in their sport and also use that greatness to get politically involved. Yet despite James’s good intentions, many political pundits like Laura Ingraham will continue to condemn his actions, calling into question the validity of his opinion.
Regardless, James, Kaepernick, and other athletes in the NBA, NFL, or other fields of professional sports should continue to exercise their voices off the field of play. The prevalence of police violence and racial bias continues to be an issue in the US, and unless there is awareness of the issue, it will never be solved. Some of that essential awareness can come from the fans of sports and the youth who dream to be like their favorite player, and that awareness can only stem from the words that the players they idolize say.
In response to Ingraham’s scathing talk, James said: “I will definitely not ‘shut up and dribble’. I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth, I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don't have a way out and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they're in”. Athletes mean too much to their viewers and society to stay silent in the face of societal injustices. Their voices will continue to be needed so long there’s something that needs to be done right in our country.