LeBron, Like Ali Before Him, is Greater Than Sports
Earlier this year, LeBron James used his own media platform to melt the President of the United States. Driving through light snowfall in the back of a black Escalade with Kevin Durant and Cari Champion, James describes what it’s like to speak your mind as a professional athlete in increasingly divided times.
“Well, the climate is hot,” he begins, rubbing his hands together and gazing out the window. Then, James draws a blowtorch.
“The number one job in America, the appointed person is someone who doesn't understand the people, and really don’t give a fuck about the people,” he says. “When I was growing up, there were like three jobs that you looked for inspiration, or you felt like these were the people that could give me life. It was the president of the United States, it was whoever was the best in sports, and then it was like the greatest musician at the time. You never thought you could be them, but you can grab inspiration from them.”
Soon after, FOX News TV host Laura Ingraham churned James’s words into gruel for her audience, the millions who fear progress, equality, and the accelerated disintegration of their social status on a nightly basis. Above a chyron that read “LEBRON’S R-RATED POLITICS,” the 55-year-old Ingraham leaned into the camera and, as if speaking to one of her three children, scolded the most disciplined, accomplished, and culturally relevant athlete in the country: “So keep the political commentary to yourself, or, as someone once said: ‘Shut up and dribble’.”
As the segment faded into a commercial break, Ingraham tilted her chair back and let a smirk crack across her face. It immediately backfired, providing James, a skilled purveyor in today’s catchphrase culture, with enough oxygen to respond with a phrase that’s become his mantra: I am more than an athlete.
It’s a feeling that’s percolated in LeBron for quite some time. He lives in the same world we do, and sees the growing hate, race-baiting, and fear-mongering in every newscycle. From Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Ohio’s Tamir Rice to consistent calls for gun control, Charlottesville, and Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing unemployment, James refuses to ignore a deteriorating society that still doesn’t treat African-Americans as people. And the problems are only getting worse.
‘Shut up and dribble’ was racist. The word “nigger” was spray-painted on his home last year (which led to one of the most obvious statements James has ever made: "No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough.") James grew up in a state that cast 2.84 million votes for Donald Trump, a man who openly doubted LeBron’s intelligence earlier this month. He sees the writing on the wall, and knows he’s in a position to do something about it.
“I’m more than just a guy that goes on the court and plays basketball,” James said during a recent trip to Shanghai, with his mantra glowing as a backdrop. “I also have a voice. I’m also a father. I’m also a son. I’m also a friend. I’m also more than just a guy that people see on the floor.”
Above everything else, LeBron is judged by what he does on the court. How can he defeat the Golden State Warriors? How do his statistics stack up in the MVP race? Will he surpass Michael Jordan? Away from basketball, LeBron’s impressive business portfolio has lead to direct comparisons with Magic Johnson, his new boss and ostensible mentor. Both dimensions are significant, and help substantiate who James is and where he’s going.
But there is room for so much more. A few months from his 34th birthday, as he gazes upon a nation that’s reignited its own moral insolvency, James is increasingly acting like someone who wants his cultural and political imprint to embody the spirit of countless black athletes—Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, etc.—who once lived on the edge in the name of a cause, who recognized sport as a means to an end. It’s a wider, more admirable and difficult legacy he’s searching for. In some ways, it’s extinct. In others, he’s the right man at the right time.
“I would never compare myself to Muhammad Ali because I never had to go through what those guys had to go through back in those times,” James said shortly after the boxer’s death in 2016. “But I feel it's my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me.”
It’s easy to be cynical about that. LeBron is rich enough to pay for your children’s children’s children’s college education with pizza money alone. Much of his political commentary is well tread and in demand. (Trump was a bum before James was born.) He does not confront situations that have the potential to bruise his ego or scandalize his brand. But that criticism lacks context and misses the point.
History was always in the black social activist’s corner, but most athletes who challenged societal norms in previous generations did so in the face of extreme unpopularity. Their triumph was shaped by an “opportunity” to overcome tangible obstacles. More than a few strands of the Civil Rights era remain for black Americans, but the world has advanced in ways that shield James from ever confronting the daily lashings of racial prejudice someone like Robinson bravely endured. Through no fault of his own, LeBron has yet to stare down a prison sentence at the cost of his spiritual beliefs, either. But at the same time, he will never elude the flames Ali, Robinson, and countless others felt.
James responds in ways that fit today. He knows that his voice is powerful enough to stabilize, unite, and push back without sacrificing his own standing, wallet, or reputation. He’s cemented himself as the first athlete of his stature to challenge social issues from a position of strength, without any threat of legitimate retribution. He is a walking symbol of what so many fought for: As a black man in America, LeBron is worshiped as an oppositional figure. And instead of being content with what he’s been provided and simply acknowledging a struggle that took place before he existed, James continues to push this critical, neverending movement forward.
Punches thrown by someone with an audience as large as his don’t miss. He personifies rational thought at a time when rational thought stands diametrically opposed to needless cruelty. There is no instruction manual for how to behave as the most famous athlete in the United States of America. But much like those before him, James is creating a blueprint for future generations by harnessing his social platform and empowering those who struggle in a country that prides itself on suppression. (The I Promise School, which is deserving of its own anthology, let alone a sentence in this column, is potentially the single most important initiative any athlete has made in my lifetime.)
But what comes next is hard to say. In 1974, as a 32-year-old man with no nation, Ali flew to Zaire for arguably the most important fight of his career. After needing only eight rounds to pull off a win very few expected, he said: “I know that beating George Foreman and conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond all this and prepare myself for more. I know that I enter a new arena.”
In the moment, Ali recognized what truly mattered; that consciousness above all else—including his unparalleled charisma, dancing feet, and pretty face—helped shape the revered figure we accept today. LeBron is smart enough to realize the same thing. While today’s efforts are valuable, his long-term action, as he splashes into Los Angeles and the next professional phase of his life, is even more critical. LeBron was once reportedly willing to sit out games as a way to protest Donald Sterling’s ownership. Would he ever actually go that far? Does he need to? Is his goal to follow Magic’s footsteps and be aspirational on an unprecedented scale (while economically enabling low-income communities)? Or will he more forcefully leverage his name and wealth in ways that persuade actual policy for the greater good?
At the very least, through his production company, SpringHill Entertainment, LeBron has already helped greenlight projects that can stimulate thought and change, be it by shining spotlight on seminal, albeit forgotten, figures from the past and throwing them back in the public consciousness, or tackling a system (like the NCAA) that’s rotting from its core. The myriad ways he can have an impact are boundless, be it through entertainment or philanthropy. Over the next 30 years, James has a rare, borderline-unparalleled opportunity to help vast swaths of American society. How far will he go?
This isn’t about comparing James to literal icons who’ve been eternalized on dorm room walls, forever etched in the imagination of millions all over the world. It’s about him accepting what it means to be socially active as the most important (and scrutinized) black celebrity in a country that’s sliding.
“When I decided I was going to start speaking up and not giving a fuck about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mindset was it's not about me," James said during the premiere of his new HBO show The Shop. “I think Ali already knew. He knew that it wasn’t about him. ‘I’m gonna get the backlash. I’m gonna go to jail. But what this is gonna do for the next group. What this is gonna do for the next athlete. What this is gonna do for the next minority who wants to speak up, whenever that happens?’ Ali’s whole mindset was that at some point, somebody is gonna take what I did, and I sensed that. I sensed that, on losing this or losing that, or losing popularity. My popularity went down. But at the end of the day, my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than me personally.”
Here, James makes his impossibly complicated responsibility sound simple. It’s depressing, but that inspirational virtuosity will always be necessary.
Not even six months after she uttered “shut up and dribble,” and then tried to save face amid advertising boycotts and public shame, Laura Ingraham’s audience continues to grow. She is ultimately less than a thorny footnote, but her show’s popularity helps crystallize a watershed moment for race relations in this country—one that may allow LeBron to carve out a place in history beside Ali, even without the same self-sacrifice.
He can be known for what he did with his fame and accomplishments instead of the fame and accomplishments themselves. That’s folklore. That’s immortality. That’s the legacy of a King.