Last week, President Trump took on LeBron James, questioning the intelligence of the Los Angeles Lakers’ star and aiming a dart at him over comparisons to Michael Jordan. Trump’s comment came days after James’s I Promise school opened in Akron, a collaboration between the public schools in his hometown and his charitable foundation.
But here’s the thing about the president’s hot take: It’s too late if his hope is to quash athletes’ commentary and accomplish anything other than resonating with his base.
When it comes to political and social activism, athletes of all colors and genders are finding their voice and refusing to remain silent, whether in vocal, physical or social media demonstrations. The activism may not please the president or owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, but it is cascading. Just look at what happened Saturday, after Trump’s tweet about James gained loft.
This is hardly a new development, of course. Athletes, such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and others spoke out during the 1960s and helped raise civil rights awareness. But over the last few years, as unarmed black people have been shot to death by police, athletes have been more vocal. Even Jordan, who has scrupulously avoided speaking up about political and social issues, has refused to remain silent.
Trace it back to wherever you please, but the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida in 2012 is a good place to start. It offered athletes the chance to use their platform and the Miami Heat, for whom James then played, stepped up with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others posing for a photo wearing hoodies. And athletes, including Jordan, seized the day when racist comments by Donald Sterling led to him selling the Clippers under threat of a boycott of games by players.
Time and again, athletes have sent a message about the deaths of young people across the country. Whether in Minneapolis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson or elsewhere, players spoke up in some fashion and on Saturday night ESPN’s Randy Moss brought that message to the NFL Network. The occasion was induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he wore a powerful necktie that bore the names of people lost. He explained his reason, using a quote that has been used variously by politicians and authors for years and attributing it to Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
“With great powers come great responsibility,” Moss said on ESPN. “You asked me about my tie. We all know what’s going on. You see the names on my tie. Being able to use a big platform like this at the Hall of Fame — what I wanted to express with my tie is to let these families [of the young people] know that they’re not alone.
“I’m not here voicin’, but by these names on my tie and a big platform at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there’s a lot of stuff going on in our country and I just wanted to let these family members know that they’re not alone.”
Golfer Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters champion, shelled out $30,000 for a shoe worn by James in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals, a game Watson attended. The purchase was part of an auction of 114 pairs of James’s Nike shoes, with the winner getting one and the other going on display at the I Promise school.
“You know, I’ve won three times this year, but this was way better in my book,” Watson said last week. “I feel like I’m known as a golfer and not a real person sometimes and I just want to do other things that are far more important than playing golf.”
Russell, the 84-year-old Hall of Famer and a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree whose Twitter background bears the image from the 1960s of the summit he attended, offered a voice of experience, tweeting that being criticized by Trump is “the biggest compliment you can get.”
Even Jordan, who has seemingly preferred to accept criticism rather than speaking up, has gotten more involved. The Hall of Famer, billionaire behind Nike’s Jordan Brand and owner of the Charlotte Hornets spoke up when Sterling was forced out and again in the summer of 2016, when he condemned the killing of African Americans by police. Last year, with NFL players, coaches and owners choosing to make a statement during national anthems across the country, and the NBA in the spotlight because of Trump’s “uninvitation” of the Golden State Warriors to the White House, Jordan added his voice.
“One of the fundamental rights this country is founded on was freedom of speech, and we have a long tradition of nonviolent, peaceful protest. Those who exercise the right to peacefully express themselves should not be demonized or ostracized,” he said in a statement two years ago. “At a time of increasing divisiveness and hate in this country, we should be looking for ways to work together and support each other and not create more division. I support Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA, its players and all those who wish to exercise their right to free speech.”
Realizing that he “can no longer remain silent,” he wrote in a lengthy statement to The Undefeated in July 2016 of the need to “find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers — who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all — are respected and supported.” Jordan added that he was donating $1 million each to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Jordan has faced for criticism for using corporate-speak, but the point is he’s speaking. On Saturday, he dodged the LeBron vs. M.J. “greatest” angle in Trump’s tweet, saying through a spokesperson: “I support L.J. He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”
Whether young or old, black or white, male or female, athletes and former athletes are more than ever trying to make a difference. The Philadelphia Eagles’ Chris Long donated his salary to charity and established scholarships in his Charlottesville hometown after violence there. His question, “Why not help?” is one that is increasingly being answered every day, whether with words or actions.
For James, that means a new school, with bikes, meals for students and college tuition for those who graduate. It’s a worthy step in the evolution of athletes, a throwback to the 1960s and a tribute to people like Ali, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. It’s also a reminder that no one is going to be sticking to sports.
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