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LeBron rewrites playbook on athlete activism on way to the top

February 08, 2023 18:55 IST
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LeBron James

IMAGE: LeBron James became a leading voice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Photograph: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

LeBron James broke the all-time NBA scoring record on Tuesday, adding another line in the history books as he bats aside a code of silence pressed upon famous athletes to remain apolitical in order to maintain broad appeal.

Three decades after Michael Jordan famously quipped 'Republicans buy sneakers too,' basketball's new 'Greatest of All Time' is taking a new approach as his sport's preeminent figure.


"He squashed the notion that was around during the MJ years that if you did speak out, it would hurt your marketability," said Etan Thomas, a former NBA player and author of "We Matter: Athletes and Activism."

"LeBron showed that it's not going to affect anything .... It was really important for him to do that because for a while, the reason why you saw so many people quiet was because the top person, MJ, was quiet."

Thomas spent about a decade in the NBA after going in the first round of the 2000 draft and was a vocal critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He said other players would approach him during his years in the league to discuss his activism - quietly.

"They didn't feel comfortable saying anything themselves," he told Reuters. "That was floating around still, that you would be hurting yourself if you do."

James became a leading voice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

But his activism began to take shape years earlier, as he backed Democrat Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign in 2008 and in 2012 joined his then-team mates on the Miami Heat in a protest over the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

The four-times MVP took aim at Republican then-President Donald Trump in 2018, saying Trump had emboldened racists in the United States. Later, he opened the "I Promise" school for at-risk students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

In response to his criticism of Trump, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham told him to "shut up and dribble". Trump slung a barbed tweet questioning James's intelligence.

Most recently, James challenged the media when a resurfaced 1957 photo of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones standing in a crowd blocking Black students from entering an Arkansas high school got little attention from reporters.

"It's a kind of once-in-a-generation individual that we're seeing right now," said Doug Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and expert in the history of athlete activism.

Hartmann compared James's impact to that of boxing great Muhammad Ali, while also noting that James, whom SportsPro listed among 2022's most marketable athletes, had kept speaking up without seeing his wildly popular personal brand erode.

Forbes ranked James as the second-highest-paid athlete in the world in 2022.

"He kind of maintained as broad of a consensus appeal, not only because of his activism, but also because of the way he's kind of done marketing and business and commercialization," said Hartmann.

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