We Need More Activist Athletes Like LeBron James

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.

University of Indianapolis professor Jamal Ratchford observed, in the wake of that original Decision, that James was exuding a kind of "pragmatic nationalism" that made clear "strategies designed to improve black communities were more important than ideological pronouncements, conformity and rigidity." Now James is coming back to implement his strategy with something more dogmatic: what he can do for young people coming of age in northern Ohio is more important – over the long haul – than sticking it to Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers.

James is establishing a standard, and he is doing so in a manner that underscores he is a student of political change, not just a parrot of its vernacular. Indeed, the non-profit, non-partisan think tank Policy Matters Ohio recently outlined investment in education and the retrofitting of obsolete manufacturing skills for higher technology as keys to reviving the US region arguably hit hardest by economic change this decade.

James may not be able to fix the unemployment rate in Ohio, where the state’s labor force continued to contract and unemployment for black Ohioans continues to be greater than twice that of white Ohioans. But he can further disprove Gilbert's four-year-old spittle.

"This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown 'chosen one,'" Gilbert wrote upon James's departure, "sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And 'who' we would want them to grow-up to become."

Turns out, LeBron James is sowing seeds to wind up more than just a role model. He could be a standard-bearer of black empowerment.


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