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Friday, December 16, 2016

December 16, 2016: Basketball’s Birthday: LeBron and Activism

[On December 15th, 1891, James Naismith invented the game of basketball. So for the sport’s 125th birthday, I’ll BasketballStudy five histories, figures, and stories connected to one of our most enduring pasttimes. Add your responses and thoughts for a slam-dunk crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On what’s crucial, and what’s complicated, about the superstar’s public activisms.
I’ve written before in this space about athlete activists: a couple posts on the University of Missouri football players who protested the university’s president; and this recent post on San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest (in the context of the 1968 Mexico City protest). Without intending the slightest bit of disrespect to those athletes, I would argue that they were relatively unknown on the national level prior to their famous protests: certainly no individual Missouri football player from that group had achieved any national prominence (nor have any even in the aftermath of their controversy); and while Kaepernick was already well-known to serious NFL fans, I think it’s fair to say that he had never reached a level of wide cultural recognition or fame (and was by the time his protests started a back-up quarterback). That doesn’t lessen either the bravery or the potential effects of their protests, but it nonetheless means that those protests were responded to and have functioned differently than would have been the case if they had been undertaken by more already-prominent athletes.
I’m sure you could make the case for other figures, particularly given the worldwide prominence of soccer and thus of athletes like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but I believe any short list of the most famous athletes in the world, circa December 2016, would have to include LeBron James. James has been famous since his high school days, and that fame has only grown over his long and groundbreaking NBA career. And for at least the last few years of that career, James has undertaken a series of very public, and controversial, activist efforts: from his leading the Miami Heat in taking a 2012 photo to honor Trayvon Martin and protest his murder; to his recent campaign stops and speeches in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Whatever your feelings on LeBron (up here in Massachusetts he has been persona non grata for a long time, but full disclosure, I’m a fan), these public stances have represented a striking and inspiring risk for an athlete who was, by the time he undertook them, one of the most recognizable and marketable brands in sports (for a contrasting and I would argue more typical case, note Cam Newton’s complete lack of willingness to engage with #BlackLivesMatter). While I could imagine cynical readings of LeBron’s activist efforts, to my mind they reflect a superstar athlete willing to take risks in support of what he believes.
So I’m a serious fan of LeBron’s activism efforts—but as I said, I’m also a fan of LeBron himself. And therein lies a potential complication—like many prominent athletes (indeed, like nearly all of them in this age of hot takes and internet trolling and hyper-polarization), LeBron is a polarizing figure, one who has inspired as much derision and hate as admiration and accolades in his career to date. Our 2016 politics are already plenty polarized in any case, of course, but I don’t know that adding athletes or celebrities who bring their own polarizing effects into the mix necessarily helps. Again, I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t pursue these activisms, but am rather just wondering if there might be an unexpected and ironic effect of pushing people away from just as much as it might draw people into certain efforts and causes. That doesn’t mean that only universally beloved folks should enter political conversations, of course—not only because that’s a very short list these days (Tom Hanks comes to mind, and even he has faced backlash for his vocal opposition to Donald Trump), but also because politics isn’t and shouldn’t be a safe or muted space. But it’s just one more layer of complexity to this compelling and controversial side to a superstar like LeBron.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other basketball stories or histories you’d share for the weekend post?

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