Lebron James is Muhammad Ali. He is Michael Jordan.
While he may or may not be “The Greatest,” Lebron undeniably is the current face of American sports, and, like those before him—Jordan and Ali, Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, etc.—one of the most recognizable people in the world. What he has done with this position is somewhat complicated.
Lebron cultivates an image of one of the great activists in America, while, at the same time, routinely being criticized vigorously by the activist community. It is a conundrum which offers insight not only into Lebron James but, more importantly, into the functional and altruistic nature of activism.
It is the allegorical illumination of a debate crucial to activists in a time of engagement.
The Parable of Lebron and Carmelo
Lebron James has 34 million Twitter followers. He has nearly 28 million followers on Instagram. The pulpit from which he speaks is enormous. But Lebron is often criticized by activists for failing to use this bully pulpit in a way they find acceptable.
He has been lambasted for perceived inaction regarding racial issues, Donald Trump and is disparaged for his cool attitude towards Colin Kaepernick, and condemned for using the term “All Lives Matter.”
Of course, Lebron James has been immensely charitable with his vast fortune, and perhaps he is not obligated to do anything for any cause. In fact, by protecting his endorsements and his position within the power structure, looking out for himself and his family, Lebron would be, within some interpretations of “The American Dream,” acting quite admirably.
People often point to Michael Jordan when defending Lebron. Jordan was, they will say, resolutely apolitical. If Jordan could (allegedly) quip “Republicans buy shoes too,” and be beloved, why not Lebron?
This simplistic narrative ignores Jordan’s tangible action in the boardrooms—his company within Nike and now his NBA basketball team, of which Jordan is the first black owner in league history, both hire(d) far more African-Americans to executive positions than their peers. More importantly, it ignores Jordan’s redefinition of possibilities, not on a basketball court, but for the athlete in general.
When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s “color barrier” in 1947, he did so with a calm, determined public demeanor in the face of racist opposition from not only segments of the public, but the league in which he worked. Hank Aaron faced much of the same as he stoically approached Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home run record 26 years later. Jim Brown retired from the NFL in 1966 at only 30 years of age, using the freedom to become not only an actor but an activist. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists to the sky at the 1968 Olympics they were kicked out of the games and ostracized in their country by friends, family, and strangers alike. Even the great Muhammad Ali was kicked out of boxing for his political views while he was the heavyweight champion of the world.
These athletes and many others, for all their celebrity, were but cogs in a wheel. What power they were afforded was near completely dependent on being permitted to participate in their respective sports. They could and would be blacklisted if they stepped outside the boundaries prescribed for them.
Three years before Michael Jordan entered the NBA, the league finals were broadcast on tape delay. Fourteen years later, when Jordan played his final game for the Chicago Bulls, nearly 75 million people in the United States watched the game on live television.
In the years between, Jordan shifted the paradigm for what an athlete could be. He forged the reality of the athlete as an independent entity, outside the confines of, and unbeholden to, a sport.
Now, if Lebron James wants to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a safety pin, he will not be ostracized like Smith and Carlos. If he wants to criticize the President or put himself front and center on racial issues, he does not have to worry about being kicked out of his sport. And, through social media, he does not have to rely on the narrative creation of corporate media, instead speaking to millions unfiltered.
Here is where the discussion on Lebron’s obligation to activism becomes muddled.
The critique of Michael Jordan’s activism was of his inaction. With Lebron, it is more a critique of his action itself. When Lebron asserts himself in the middle of an issue, the power of his platform means much of the attention regarding the issue will be focused on him; Lebron as a de facto face.
When he then declines to contribute further with words or tangible actions, he drains energy and engagement away from the cause, whether he intends to or not.
In 2014, Tamir Rice, a boy of about the same age as Lebron’s son, was shot dead by police in Lebron’s hometown in a horrific scene. Attention turned immediately to Lebron, who had worn a hoodie for Trayvon Martin, and an ‘I can’t breathe’ shirt for Eric Garner, and was now seeing the issue come directly to his doorstep. A hashtag went viral – #NoJusticeNoLebron – suggesting he should sit out Cleveland Cavaliers games in protest.
Far from protesting, Lebron twice publicly obfuscated, stating, “To be completely honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment on it.” It was seen as a shocking proclamation of ignorance from someone who had so meticulously cultivated the belief that this was an issue he was passionate about.
By the time it became painfully clear that Lebron would not be getting involved, much of the original energy and engagement had dissipated, and opponents seized the opportunity to use Lebron’s lack of involvement to discredit the entire cause—he didn’t have anything to say because there was nothing to say.
Recently, Lebron James refused to stay in a Trump hotel. When questioned about this decision, with the eyes of the world on him, he declined to educate, illuminate, or opine further on what could or should be done regarding President Trump.
It is curious what opposition to Donald Trump has become.
Those who proclaim so loudly that they are afraid of Trump, or that all of his supporters are racist, are often unable to present a coherent list of grievances or a tangible plan of opposition. They do not identify occurrences of systemic racism or oligarchy and elucidate opportunities for action and change. Rather, by declaring Trump and all of the 60 million people who voted for him to be irredeemable and frightening racists, they make a proclamation about themselves—I am educated, I am enlightened, I am benevolent. Not like those backward hillbilly Trump supporters.
It is not a means to an end. It is a signal of their own virtue, an advertisement of benevolence.
The problem with virtue signaling is that it is not just ineffective, it is often counterproductive.
The first response of many on ‘the left’ to Trump’s election was to direct their energy, anger, and engagement into protesting the Electoral College and talking about faithless electors rather than creating a battle plan.
One wonders how many of those protesting were previously, or will be in the future, involved with one of the many groups organized to work towards Electoral College reform.
While people were yelling about how much of an anti-Semitic white supremacist Jeff Sessions was, Trump nominated multiple people to Cabinet positions whose selections appear to reject the foundations of American democracy.
The truth is, whether it is regarding the President, racial issues, or elsewhere, Lebron James has become the face of a certain type of activism; one of flashbulbs and magazine covers, retweets and likes and wearing a cause like a fashion accessory, of hearty applause from the hands of the like-minded.
And one of impotence.
Carmelo Anthony is not Muhammad Ali, nor Michael Jordan. He is also not Lebron James, though he can perhaps be described as a contemporary.
He was drafted into the NBA the same year as Lebron and has been a league all-star nine times. He does not have 60+ million followers on Twitter and Instagram, as Lebron does, but with over 13 million his reach is still extensive. He is not the face of a generation, but he is certainly one of the faces of the league.
Carmelo, like Lebron, is also an activist, though one with a decidedly different approach.
When Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, where Carmelo grew up, a situation similar to Lebron and Tamir Rice, Carmelo not only spoke out but went to Baltimore to march with Black Lives Matter protesters.
This hands-on approach has, in fact, become the hallmark of Carmelo’s activism.
He hosted a social activist meeting in South Central Los Angeles attended by youth, police, politicians, athletes, and community leaders. He met with prisoners at Rikers Island to discuss the incarceration state and prison reform. During the Olympics in Brazil, he was the only member of the USA basketball team to venture into the Rio slums, where he spoke to the residents in an attempt to gain a more nuanced understanding of poverty.
He has written thoughtful pieces for The Guardian and The Undefeated discussing issues of race, poverty, and activism. Interestingly, Lebron wrote a piece for The Business Times in 2016 extolling the virtues of Hillary Clinton.
When Lebron was proclaiming he had “shed multiple tears” over Philando Castille, similar to the “cry-ins” held by college students across America after Trump’s election, Carmelo was penning his now famous Instagram ‘call to action’ for activists and athletes.
A couple social media post/tweet doesn’t work. We’ve all tried that.
Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE.
It is easy to desire a position of leadership, hard to achieve it, and harder still to earn it.
When four NBA stars, including Carmelo and Lebron, opened the ESPY Awards with a social justice speech, it was Carmelo who spoke first.
USA Basketball teammate and aspiring activist Kyrie Irving described Carmelo’s impact:
Carmelo taught us all this summer what it means to use your position to influence the world. He taught us that we need to stand up for what we believe in and that athletes need to get involved in the social issues that are affecting us all. I don’t think you can overstate the impact that Carmelo’s had on athletes in all sports.
Comparing the activism of Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony is an allegory, the two men representing a philosophical divide between schools of thought.
Combine opposition to Trump and the energy of movements like Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Standing Rock Protectors, and others, and it appears to be a golden age for engagement. Thus, activists will, going forward, have many opportunities to be Lebron James, to follow the school of virtue signaling, or to be Carmelo Anthony, to follow the school of heavy lifting.
Carmelo to Colin Kaepernick shortly after he began his anthem kneeling protest:
You just showed a lot of courage in what you just did, but now is the hard part because you have to keep it going. So if that was just a one-time thing, then you’re fucked. But now you keep it going and be articulate and elaborate on why you’re doing it, and be educated and knowledgeable of why you’re doing it so when people ask, you can stand up for what you believe in and really let them hear why.