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We Need More Activist Athletes Like LeBron James

Could the basketball star be the new standard bearer for black empowerment?
 
 
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Photo Credit: via youtube

 
 
 
 

There was no NBA player more unequivocal in his public criticism of the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's  bigoted remarks this year than LeBron James, who boycotted by vowing not to play next season – for any team –  if Sterling still had a franchise.

There were few professional athletes more demonstrative in their disgust with the fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin two years ago than LeBron James, who protested by convincing his Miami teammates to pose for a special photograph donning hoodies like the one Martin wore when he was slain, then told his tens of millions of fans on social media:  We Want Justice.

And in between, the most powerful player in sports, despite being the richest player in the league, considered running for president of his union: it was LeBron James who would have picketed against NBA owners by insisting on  a larger share of revenues for the labor.

After that transformation – from the narcissism of The Decision to bolt for Miami four years ago, to the nationalism bordering on activism of today – it was difficult not to squirm on Friday afternoon. Yes, James  was universally celebrated for coming home to Cleveland, for burying the hatchet in favor of doing for his home state what he'd done for Miami: win a championship. But how did he square his radical maturity with what he had actually done? Because LeBron James is delivering his prodigious athletic talent to an owner, Dan Gilbert, who not only represents the management James disapproved but who has  publicly rebuked James for exercising his freedom to leave Cleveland in the first place. And that is rewarding paternalism with profit, not emasculating he who dared to emasculate you.

You've probably read  James's essay in Sports Illustrated at least once by now. He said a lot of things in those 949 words, but not enough people understand his recasting of the image of the black American athlete into a more powerful political presence. So don't focus on the "apology" part – read between the lines of his his intellectual reasoning. Because this is what nation-building looks like:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead ... I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business ... Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

Even when James staged his conceited ESPN special in 2010, he  made sure $2.5m of the ad revenue went to the to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America – including a quarter of that to branches in Ohio, plus  another million in computers and athletic gear for kids – but that is a nearly revolutionary statement. It harkens to Kansas City's oldest community development corporation, the Black Economic Union, started in 1968 by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown to spur redevelopment in the city's black neighborhoods. It's an idea that certainly eclipses most anything other sports icons like Michael Jordan, from whom James was handed the supernova torch, ever pronounced so directly.

James, of course, is not the only black athlete using some of his financial and celebrity largesse for community good – Dikembe Mutombo financed an entire healthcare infrastructure in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo – but the combination of self-determination and notoriety is making James the modern-day embodiment of the ideal athlete championed by the sociologist Harry Edwards in Revolt of The Black Athlete: an athlete who understands community building.