Unless Lebron James plans to risk his career and get arrested in the streets during a live Cavs game, public statements and court symbolism are as far as he can go under white supremacist capitalism.
It’s never been easy being a Black athlete. First, at the outset of birth of national leagues, Blacks with any interest and talent in sports were banned from playing on a national team. Second, when integration in sports was achieved, Black players, in addition to excelling at their chosen game, were equally responsible for being race men and speaking out on civil rights. Paul Robeson comes immediately to mind.
This is not to suggest that every Black to step on a field during the black freedom movements was a Paul Robeson or Muhammad Ali. But, this was the era of old Jim Crow. Opportunities for Blacks looking to do anything, to succeed in any industry, let alone sports, were scarce and, from all angles, circumscribed by white supremacy. Circumstances were such that the mere presence of black athletes thriving and surviving in traditionally all-white games was enough, deemed a contribution in itself.
Symbolism was crucial. Joe Louis knocked down stereotypes as well as opponents in the ring. Jackie Robinson broke barriers when he picked up a bat for the MLB. Everytime Althea Gibson swung a tennis racket and won a Grand Slam, the Black community’s stock went up, or so some people believed. Black people playing professional sports held meaning because every Black was representative of group progress and an ambassador of Black culture.
Being a professional Black athlete now, in the post-Civil Rights period, is very different. The black middle class, relatively speaking, is larger. The league is dominated by black players. The “firsts,” I gather, hold far less resonance than they formerly did. That is, being a black athlete contains no symbolic weight. Fans of all ethnic backgrounds may admire Julius Irving, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Cam Newton, not necessarily because these performers are a credit to their race, but a credit to a color-blind capitalist empire. Even Serena Williams was recently celebrated for being the richest woman athlete.
This is the context we must keep in mind when we raise questions about basketball superstar Lebron Jame’s activism in this three-year-old movement for Black Lives, which has come up, again, in light of his remarks at the 2016 ESPY awards.
Kevin Blackistone, over at The Guardian, has gone so far as to call James a “politician.” I don’t know about all that. But, the pillar of his argument is worth repeating.
James, Blackistone says, has used his position as the “face of the NBA” to speak out on a variety of issues: the murder of Trayvon Martin, Donald Sterling’s racists comments, the Mike Brown verdict, and the death of Eric Garner. He mentions his donations to the Boys and Girls Club of America, including 2.5 million in ad revenue from The Decision in 2010. He put in a plug for his foundation, his scholarships, and his criticisms of the distribution of revenue in the NBA. (I’d be interested to know the income differentials among all the various kinds of employment within the basketball industry. I need to do the research.)
In terms of protesting Martin and Garner, James organized symbolic honorariums during warm-ups before games: donning, in the first case, a hoodie, and in the second, a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” across the front. He tweeted his frustration about these instances of police brutality and the most recent kills of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Excluded from his praise song is James’s refusal to boycott the Cavs after a grand jury refused to indict Cleveland police officers for killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Maybe that can be forgiven since he planned to withdraw his services if the NBA refused to fire Donald Sterling. Maybe, just maybe, that would’ve been his Muhammad Ali moment. Maybe not.
What is certain is that the mere presence of James in the NBA won’t cut it. Unless “The King” plans to risk his career, march with his fellow athlete friends in the streets and get arrested confronting militarized police officers outfitted in riot gear and throwing tear gas during a live Cavs game, this really is about as far as he can, and — in all probability — will go within the philanthropic space granted him as an extremely rich, Black athlete success story in white supremacist capitalistic society. Alongside privately donating huge sums of money to specifically black lives matter organizations, that’s the only way he and all his colleagues can differentiate themselves from Black athletes of yesteryear.
He will never be representative of Black people in a way that Robinson, Louis, Gibson, or Bill Russell was. And his rise out of the dire straits of Akron’s black poverty will always be read through the lens of hard work and black capitalism, not group economics.
As it stands, we don’t know if he donates anonymously to Black Lives Matter (it wouldn’t surprise me if he did), in addition to his other philanthropic work, or when he plans to inject his celebrity into a street demonstration.