LeBron the activist? A peek behind the curtain

The state of the current climate in America right now is unveiling truths. Not only as a nation but as individuals more than ever. The tragic and senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was an awakening, specifically for white America. Multiple issues have been falling on the deaf ears of Lady Liberty for decades. The cries of black people across America have always been nudged aside intentionally. The heinous acts of injustice at the hands of law enforcement have been videotaped repeatedly on numerous occasions. America has been at a standstill due to COVID-19. This tragedy, mixed with the pandemic, was the perfect storm for America to see through the lens of a black individual.

The entire country witnessed the life that was suffocated away from Floyd by the knee of officer Chauvin. The moment the last breath left Floyd’s lungs, the pandemic of racial injustice was on full display. It’s the most fascinating phenomenon in America. The amount of coverage from middle school hoops, to the professional level, is unprecedented. Yet, the burden remains off the court or field. Black athletes are each aware of the injustice and prejudices their people face. Some athletes choose not to speak on these issues for numerous reasons. I call this currency preservation; the higher you rise, the more you risk losing. These losses include endorsements, fan popularity, and in some cases, future contract extensions. In the black community, we cherish athletes who are not afraid to put it on the line for the culture. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Craig Hodges, Colin Kaepernick, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, to name a few. These are athletes who either put their profession, livelihoods, and safety on the line for their people.

Some fans and media members today are willing to lump Lebron James in that category. To those people, I say not so fast.

There is no denying the numerous contributions Lebron has made, not only to the black community, and the state of Ohio, but the numerous acts of generosity during his career. Five foundations stand out. The Muhammad Ali Foundation, A Force for Change, Boys and Girls Club of America, Children Defense Fund, ONEXONE, and the I Promise School. Perhaps the most discussed is the I Promise School that opened in the Summer of 2018. Located in his hometown of Akron Ohio, the curriculum serves students from third through eighth grade, intending to educate 720 students through 2022. The opening of school is arguably the most impressive feat by an athlete in their community in recent history.

Lebron is known to show up publicly on numerous occasions regarding social injustice. In 2012 after the tragic murder of Treyvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, James was at the forefront alongside his Miami teammates in a photo wearing hoodies. That was a symbolic representation of the hoodie that seventeen-year-old Martin wore the night he was murdered. The hoodie was the crux of racial profiling enacted by Zimmerman when he pursued Trayvon. The act occurred while Martin was walking home from the store while carrying a can of Arizona tea and skittles.


On the night of Dec. 8, 2014, Lebron and his Cavalier teammates wore ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts honoring Eric Garner. Garner, a twenty-seven-year-old resident of Staten Island NY, was choked to death by officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17, 2014. The senseless murder of Garner stemmed from soliciting cigarettes, an issue that should have been resolved without any violence. The apprehension resulted in Garner being choked to death on the ground. Garner repeated the words, “I can’t breathe” on camera eleven times before losing consciousness.

The same year, on November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland Ohio was gunned down. Rice was gunned down by officer Timothy Loehmann on camera for carrying a replica toy gun. Loehmann fired shots immediately upon arriving on the scene. Rice was killed by law enforcement, approximately 45 minutes from LeBron’s hometown of Akron. The incident was presumed to be dear to James, but shockingly it was not the case. James was eerily silent on the matter. Not only was he silent, but a full year would pass before James would address the tragedy publicly. During the months of no response, there was an uneasy feeling by many, especially considering that up to this point, James had never shied away from speaking on these topics. On Dec. 30, 2015, James addressed the media following the Cavs win over Denver saying, “for me, I’ve always been a guy who takes pride in knowledge of every situation that I’ve ever spoken on. And to be honest, I haven’t been on top of this issue. So, it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that are lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone, but for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”

It was strange to hear James say that he was “not on top of this issue.”

A year passes, and he did not even consider taking it upon himself to be bothered by the situation. The response came off as somewhat inconsiderate and confusing. Arguably the most powerful man in sports deliberately did not want to address the tragedy forty-five minutes away from his hometown. The lack of concern raised eyebrows and was questionable, to say the least.

Fast forward to Oct. 4, 2019 Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted and deleted an image that spoke in support of Hong Kong Protestors. Without education or awareness, Morey sent the tweet, and almost immediately, the Chinese social media accounts responded with backlash. The following day, Rockets Owner Tillman Fertitta tweeted, “Listen, Daryl Morey does not speak for the Houston Rockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally, and we are not about a political organization.” This was a sweeping indictment of Daryl Morey’s lack of understanding in regards to social issues and the objectives of his NBA peers. On the flip side, this was the perfect opportunity for activist Lebron to spring into action. On Jan. 15, 2018, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lebron tweeted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King said this on April 16, 1963, in a letter from a Birmingham jail. As a self-proclaimed activist, this quote is the point of no return. Once James tweeted this quote from that point forward, he was expected to stand on those principles like the many athletes who were activists that came before him.

Oct. 6, 2019, numerous partners pulled out of endorsing more than the Rockets. The CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) suspended all exchanges and cooperation with the franchise. State Broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) and, Tencent Sports, the live streaming platform said they would no longer stream Rocket games. On the same day, Morey apologized to the NBA saying that his actions were heinous and irresponsible.

Simultaneously many lawmakers and politicians, including President Trump, took offense to the NBA bowing down to China. In their eyes, it seemed like they were bending to the will of China. The politicians had a point when considering that China is responsible for 10 percent of the league’s global revenue. Including the fact that the NBA had signed a five-year, $1.5 Billion extension with Tencent (Worth $4 Billion). It would be a massive detriment to disgruntle China for business, even with the knowledge of the inhumane injustices occurring. As immoral as it seems, there would not have been any problems under any other circumstance. In recent years, the NBA had become the hip league that chooses to stand for justice and equality alongside its minority players.

In Sept. 2019, Nike received $1.68 billion of its revenue from…you guessed it, China. Since the early 2000s, the NBA has looked at leagues like the NFL with a side-eye. The NBA became the Civil Rights for Everyone League. It has been a league that stands with its players through the turbulence of injustice rather than hindering them. This charge became led by the face of the NBA, activist Lebron.

Coincidently, James was in China playing a series of pre-season games when the Morey incident occurred. Lebron tweeted, addressing the current situation saying, “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.” James then followed the tweet with, “Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that.”

To put it blatantly, that was not an activist response from James. This was a response of a man who was concerned about his relationships with Nike and the NBA.

Tensions were high. Lebron then spoke with the media stating, “I don’t want to get in a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey. But I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke. So many people could have been harmed, not only physically or financially, but emotionally and spiritually. Just be careful what we tweet, what we say, and what we do. We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative things that come with that too.” This statement to the media was the epitome of hypocrisy by James. An NBA activist whose platform has been all about being more than an athlete. Knowing black people in America for generations have been unheard, and received backlash for speaking out. In 2018 James was told to “shut up and dribble” by some of the right-wing media. Now, ironically James says people must watch what they say when addressing injustice.

That was the perfect opportunity for James to act upon his MLK tweet. James could have made a stand, despite his relationship with the NBA and Nike. Instead, James abused the opportunity to lash out at Morey for placing him in this situation. This was the moment that I, among many others realized that James is only an activist when he has nothing to sacrifice.

It’s one thing to donate money, open schools, and give scholarships. It’s another thing to put your beliefs on the line when you have something to lose. Unfortunately, LeBron proved that he is unwilling to do so.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to run rapidly through the nation. Meanwhile, we have a unique spotlight shining on the injustices and atrocities among black people. There’s a shift happening in this country that generations of blacks have fought for, for years, and never seen. They finally have the undivided attention of America. Confederate flags are being retired. Systematic racism is being addressed and discussed daily in dialogue. The NFL virtuously admitted they were wrong for blackballing Kaepernick for kneeling (which flew under the radar) when his sole purpose was to bring awareness to police brutality. NASCAR, known to be the whitest sport in America has taken a stand with their lone black driver, Bubba Wallace. They also banned the confederate flag from their events.

In a conference call between 100 or more NBA players, Kyrie Irving, the VP of the Players Association, voiced his opposition to the NBA’s resumption. Irving’s sentiment was that returning would remove attention from the movement happening across the nation. LeBron didn’t agree with Irving. He stood his ground on the NBA’s plan to return to play.

The bottom line is that Lebron is choosing a chance at a fourth ring over bowing out and standing with his people. For me, this is the third strike that is obvious for the world to see that Lebron will not sacrifice anything of benefit to him for the cause. If James were to take a stand right now and not play, recognizing this is too valuable of an opportunity to pass up, the entire league would follow suit with him. Unfortunately, he has been avoiding the issue. James has been discussing everything, but Orlando.

The realization of Lebron having long term goals of owning a team one day eliminates his choice to take a true stand. Nike’s lifetime deal and his relationship with the NBA would crumble his dreams of ownership. What LeBron does for his community is great, and he deserves credit, but as far as an activist, I think that might be a tad too far.

Addam M. Francisco

Founder & Editor-in-Chief. National Association of Black Journalists. University of Central Oklahoma.

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