Sports

Professional athletes absolutely have a role in political activism

Currently in his 18th NBA season, LeBron James became the third player in league history to score a cumulative 35,000 points, joining Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Karl Malone and cementing his place as one of the greatest players of all time. Alongside his NBA career, however, James has also been recognized for what he does off the court. 

James often uses his large platform to tackle racial injustice. In June 2020, James commented on the death of George Floyd, making a post on social media with a photo of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee before an NFL game. The photo, which was captioned “This… Is Why,” commends Kaepernick’s continued efforts to speak out against racial discrimination and police brutality in the U.S. despite receiving backlash for kneeling during the national anthem. 

Despite all he has done for his community, James still receives judgement for his role in activism. In a recent interview for UEFA with Discovery+, soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic criticized James’ social and political involvement. 

“[LeBron] is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status [so] they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic said. “Do what you are good at [….] I play football because I am best at playing football [….] Just do what you do best, because it doesn’t look good.”

James was swift to highlight Ibrahimovic’s hypocrisy. 

“It’s funny that [Ibrahimovic] said that,” James said in an interview with ESPN. “In 2018 he was the same guy who said when he was back in Sweden […] he felt like there was racism going on when he was out on the pitch.” 

James was referring to a 2018 interview with Canal+ during which Ibrahimovic claimed to be facing racism for his “non-standard” Swedish last name. 

Ibrahimovic’s comments come as James continues his advocacy for social justice and racial issues, something the NBA superstar has been committed to for almost a decade. James’ initiatives have seen actionable change, and demonstrate the need for professional athletes to take part in social and political advocacy. 

In June 2020, James launched More than a Vote, an initiative aimed at improving voter turnout and reducing voter suppression in the Black community in the U.S. Since its inception, the campaign has recruited more than 42,000 volunteer poll workers. Currently, the program continues to do important work combating racism and educating the community.

James also founded the “I Promise” school in collaboration with the Akron Public Education system in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The school provides after-school tutoring, attendance incentives, and free transportation for students within a two-mile radius.

“I know what these kids go through,” James said at the opening of the school in 2018. “The most important thing for them is a structure and that we care for them. These kids [now] have the same opportunity as others. No matter where I play, Akron, Ohio will always be my home.”

James is one of many athletes involved in activism. Other athletes like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Rashford have also spoken on social issues in their communities. Brown is involved in James’ More than a Vote campaign and is also taking on his own initiatives, including teaming up with Dove Men+Care and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to promote respect, support, and protection for Black men in society. Additionally, Rashford earned the prestigious Master of British Empire (MBE) award from the Queen on his campaign to feed underfed children in the United Kingdom.

In the WNBA, the Atlanta Dream played a key role in the election of Senator Raphael Warnock, after his opponent and Dream former owner, Kelly Loeffler, made statements against the Black Lives Matter movement.

The decision between sports and activism is not a partisan one. Athletes from a diversity of professional sports must continue to speak out against historical inequities in underrepresented communities that deserve recognition. Their successful careers provide them with a platform to give a larger voice to underrepresented communities.

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