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How LeBron James has become a leading voice for social justice in a racially divided nation

“LeBron James has consistently positioned himself throughout his career as a leader. He has shown leadership on the court as well as integrity in the community…”
Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers before a game against the Celtics in Boston on Feb. 7, 2019.Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

For some, in the ongoing debate about the greatest basketball player of all time, LeBron James only enhances his case through his activism off the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers superstar has used his platform to speak out on political and social issues and recently helped form “More Than a Vote,” a group dedicated to mobilizing African American voters and fighting voter suppression.

The organization was created in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, which touched off more than three weeks of global protests for social justice.

Michael Jordan, widely considered James’ main competition for the greatest basketball player of all time, joined in by pledging $10 million a year for the next 10 years toward social justice organizations. That gesture, while significant, comes after decades of Jordan staying mostly silent on issues of race, justice and politics.

William Mitchell
William MitchellCourtesty William Mitchell

For William Mitchell, a senior sales director in Atlanta, the measure of James the man counts as much as the athlete, particularly in a time of social discord.

“That’s why it is easy for me to root for LeBron,” Mitchell said. “I appreciate his sense of history, his commitment to his Blackness and doing things on his own terms.”

Mitchell likened James to the athletes of a bygone era, like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor). In their time, they were the best in their respective sports and they supported Ali in 1967, when his heavyweight championship was revoked and he faced prison for refusing to enter the draft and go to war in Vietnam.

“If those athletes, the best of their sports in a volatile time, had a first child, it would be LeBron James,” Mitchell said. “There isn’t an athlete in the modern times to come close to what he’s done.”

Marilyn Bibby, a diehard New York Knicks fan, said James’ advocacy plays a strong role in how she views him.

Marilyn Bibby
Marilyn Bibby.Courtesy Marilyn Bibby

His off-the-court work makes James “both more likable and respected,” said Bibby, an administrator at Morehouse College, the historically Black institution in Atlanta. “Likable because he is actively listening and offering help. He recognizes by using his platform, he can draw the attention of young men and women, be heard and get results.

“Respected because he is providing a service for his country at a critical time and sees how important it is for everyone to get out and vote. This country needs leadership, and he is doing his part by stepping up where it is needed. As a successful Black man in America with kids of his own, he certainly can relate to the racism of Black people and therefore, he is genuinely committed to change.”

For his part, James, 35, has said he is “inspired” by Brown, Ali, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and the like. “Guys who stood when it was way worse than it is today. Hopefully, some day down the line, people will recognize me not only for the way I approached the game of basketball, but the way I approached life as an African American man,” he told The New York Times.

While Jordan has been criticized for purportedly protecting his brand by not speaking up during turbulent racial developments, James has been the opposite. He seemingly has not been afraid of losing endorsements or fans.

“It’s hard for me to separate the player and the man,” said Brandon Bagley, an NBA fan and a former track star at the University of Kentucky who lives in Louisville. “His basketball talent facilitates his activism. His word wouldn’t matter as much or reach as far if he were not a great player. But he is willing to risk his status in the eyes of some of the public to stand up for what he believes in.

“Michael Jordan could have been the LeBron James of the ‘90s,” Bagley, 28, added. “But Jordan seemed focused on being the best player ever and not on what was going on in the world. LeBron believes he’s more than an athlete. He’s woke and aware.”

Brandon Bagley
Brandon Bagley.Courtesy Brandon Bagley

Among the list of James’ involvement: He has contributed millions to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and paid tuition for countless students to attend the University of Akron; he and others on the Cleveland Cavaliers wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before a game in 2014 to protest the death of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer; he and his Miami Heat teammates wore hoodies two years earlier in honor of Trayvon Martin; he opened his own school, I Promise, for third through eighth graders that has produced strong outcomes; he’s produced documentaries; he’s done public service announcements supporting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in their presidential runs.

Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in 2018 told James to “shut up and dribble” when he and fellow NBA star Kevin Durant discussed the challenges of being Black in America after James’ home in L.A. was defaced with a racial slur.

“She represented the few who continue to hold on to the belief that leadership qualities cannot transfer outside of the given area,” said Dr. Christopher Bass, a forensic psychologist. “This is not the belief of the majority. We, as a community, recognize that athletes are not merely one-dimensional. The average citizen believes that leadership skills are transferable.

“We have seen celebrities in the past decry to the world, ‘I am not a role model.’ The idea that one could lead in a variety of arenas can be overwhelming. This speaks to the celebrity recognizing his/her own limitations. Yet, it’s not the commonly held belief in the court of public opinion.”

And it is not James’ opinion, either. He used the NBA All-Star Weekend that year, in front of hundreds of reporters around the world, to speak on social injustices.

"The best thing she did was help me create more awareness,” James said of Ingraham at the time. "We will definitely not shut up and dribble. ... I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don't have a way out."

A staunch James fan, Bagley said that while the player has been admirable as a voice off the court, circumstances are in James' favor.

“I can be objective. LeBron hasn’t done what Colin or Ali did,” he said, referring to Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback who hasn’t played in the NFL since protesting police brutality and injustice before games in 2016. “They really sacrificed. Colin lost his career.”

Ali lost three and half years of the prime of his career after he refused to fight in Vietnam.

“A lot of what LeBron supports is the same thing mainstream America supports,” Bagley said . “And you can guess that he looked at Jordan and heard all the criticism he received for not speaking up and did not want to be that way. I’m not saying LeBron isn’t authentic, because I believe he is. He wants to be on the right side of history.”

It is James’ sense of history that impresses Mitchell. “The only athlete Jordan had as a national celebrity to look at growing up was O.J.,” he said, referring to O.J. Simpson, the former NFL great acquitted of murder in the death of his ex-wife and her friend in 1995. “It was not lost on me that when LeBron was taking Cleveland to the Finals that first time, he went over to Jim Brown and bowed. He showed reverence. And that’s a part of who he is that is impressive.”

Why does an athlete’s opinion matter? Bass, the psychologist, said the need to hear James’, Jordan’s and other athletes’ voices is a psychological phenomenon.

“There is a whole area called the ‘psychology of celebrity’ that speaks toward this,” Bass said. “In this area of work, which is a healthy behavior, those with extraordinary gifts (especially physical) speak louder, speak with much more confidence, and in many cases have a voice that others relate to because of their gifts/skill set.”

“LeBron James has consistently positioned himself throughout his career as a leader,” Bass added. “He has shown leadership on the court as well as integrity in the community. In times like these, where many people feel hopeless, his reputation as a leader becomes very attractive.

“The idea of a well-rounded LeBron James represents the very best of who we could possibly be. Therefore, the average citizen will gravitate toward him and his words when we have no words of our own.”

James understands the moment and often owns it.

“Yes, we want you to go out and vote, but we’re also going to give you the tutorial,” he said about his new program. “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.

“Because of everything that’s going on,” he added to the Times, “people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door. How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”