The Call for Athlete Activists

by: William Morgan-Palmer

Heavily guarded, LeBron James dribbled out of backcourt to his right. Just as he reached the three-point line, with a step on his defender James went airborne floating the ball toward the rim, narrowly beating the buzzer for the win. While this image would become a fairly frequent occurrence in his historic career, this was the moment that would put the slender 16-year-old from inner city Akron, Ohio on the map. The defender he beat was 17-year-old Lenny Cooke, the person everyone had actually come to see that day. Lenny and LeBron had a lot in common. Both Lenny and LeBron grew up in impoverished inner city areas, living with the families of teammates. Most importantly both men found a way out of their circumstances through their unmatched skill on the court. LeBron is now the face of the NBA, while most have never heard of Lenny Cooke. Lenny went undrafted in 2002 and had a short career in the NBA’s D-League, only to wash out due to a serious of poor financial decisions under the advisement of lingering negative influences from his inner city youth.Two athlete’s that both had a chance to be a true rags to riches story that thousands of underprivileged kids dream of. Only one of them truly made it out. Since then, LeBron has never lost sight of his humble beginnings. For many, Akron is just another place to avoid when traveling through Ohio, but for LeBron it is home.

Top: Lenny Cooke (2001)           Bottom: Lebron James (2002)

The odds of an athlete like LeBron James emerging from a place like Akron are one in a million, and for this very reason he has become the spokes person and source of aid for so many hurting families in his hometown. Akron is one of many cities whose poverty and crime rate have revealed a number of systematic social justice issues. Many of these cities have no spokes person, athlete or otherwise, to speak on their behalf.

The racially charged struggle for kids that grow up in cities like Akron and Brooklyn is an all to common reality for young minorities across America. Social justice has emerged at the forefront of nearly every media outlet in America including that of professional sports. Fans and athletes have struggled to process the difficult state of race relations in the country as different communities have begun to speak out against the marginalization and mistreatment of minorities. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll, nearly six in ten Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are “generally bad”, compared to the two-thirds of Americans who thought the opposite in 2008 after Obama was elected. Organizations like the #BlackLivesMatter movement and their vocal opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans have struck a cord with fans and athletes who have witnessed, experienced, or empathize with the sentiment of this movement. As individuals across America have continued to echo these painful sentiments through social media, many athletes have emerged as activists utilizing their fame and renown as a platform to raise awareness and insight change. The athlete activist is not an all-together foreign concept. There are parallels between the bold actions of emerging athlete activists and that of those who spoke out during the civil rights movement. The link between these two periods of athlete activism is revealed through the theory of collective memory. Collective memory is defined as, “the shared pool of knowledge and information in the memories of two or more members of a social group”, in this case sports fans understanding of athlete activism. Collective memory serves as a lens through which sports fans can better understand the emergence of athlete activists in light of modern racial tension. Through this lens it is made clear that America is not living in a post racial society, and as the struggle to combat injustice continues professional athletes have an important obligation to speak on behalf of those who are hurting.

Collective memory is revealed in a number of ways. In the case of athlete activism, there is an uncanny sense of familiarity with bold, vocal athletes. The title, athlete activist is often conjures up images of the 1968 Olympics as Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up the Black Power salute while on the podium for the Olympic medaling ceremony.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony

Similarly names like, Jesse Owens, Muhammed Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell are likely to enter the conversation. Society’s collective memory has linked the modern development of athlete activism to that of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. While the use of social media and developments in broadcasting present notable differences when considering the parallels, there are implications about the state of our society that cannot be ignored. Put simply, we do not live in a post-racial society. These parallels indicate that there are persisting problems pertaining to race relations that have created a demand for active vocal leadership. After the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics Gold medalist Tommie Smith stated, “We were not anarchists. We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country.” American history is filled with athletes who used their platform to inspire change. Modern athletes have a valuable opportunity to take their place in this legacy and raise awareness to major issues in our country.

LeBron James appears to be the premier athlete activist of our time. As the current face of the NBA he posses the name recognition, platform, and influence to draw attention to major social justice issues. As fans tend to hate or love LeBron he is likely the most polarizing athlete in all of sports, yet in light of recent events he hasn’t shied away from equally as polarizing issues. Over the past few years James has been exceedingly vocal on issues pertaining to African Americans facing injustice in their respective communities. In March 2012, James and his Miami Heat teammates posted photos of them wearing hooded sweatshirts as a tribute to Trayvon Martin under the hashtag #WeAreTrayvonMartin.tumblr_m1cop8Qkrq1qilfa1o1_400 In 2014 LeBron spoke out against L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was caught on tape making a series of racist remarks. LeBron said, “There is no room for that in our game…comments like that, it takes our game away and we cant have that… It doesn’t matter if your Black, White, Hispanic, or whatever the case may be, we cant have that as a part of our game” Most famously, in 2014 LeBron James, teammate Kyrie Irving, and several other players around the league wore shirts with the phrase, “I Can’t Breathe” as a tribute to Eric Garner after he was killed by a chokehold administered by a police officer. Furthermore, his vocal efforts have been paired alongside frequent action, having donated millions of dollars to development in inner city Ohio and programs like “Wheels for Education” and the “I Promise program”.

LeBron’s motives speak directly to combating the “Dead or in Jail” narrative that stigmatizes young black men from Akron, Ohio and poverty stricken cities across America. In a teary eyed post-game interview after winning the 2013 NBA Championship LeBron emotionally uttered, “I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio. I’m not even supposed to be here.” The sense of responsibility that James feels can be attributed to the old adage, “To whom much is given much is required.” LeBron is acutely aware that he is a statistical anomaly. If not for him being 6’8, 250lbs, with a knock down jumper, he would likely be in the same place as many of the underprivileged kids who look up to him, or worse the deceased face of one of the many movements he has fought for. LeBron’s leadership as a socially conscious athlete has solidified his place in the legacy of athlete activists throughout sports history.

As noble as their cause may be, athlete activists have not been fully embraced by society. The relationship between Americans and professional athletes has always been fairly complicated. Despite the link to history, many critics believe that athletes are better off sticking to sports and remaining silent on political and social issues. After wearing a “Justice for Tamir and John Crawford III” t-shirt over his pads during warm ups, Cleveland Browns WR Andrew Hawkins faced a great deal of scrutiny from fans. Cleveland Police Patrolman Union President, Jeff Follmer critically stated, “It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field…the Browns organization owes us an apology.” In an emotional six-minute monologue Hawkins responded, “A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.” HawkinsOn the surface of this emotion filled controversy, it is financially bad for business. Mixing sports and politics gets in the way of the American desire to indulge in the escapism of sports. Allowing athletes to speak to social justice issues makes it a lot harder to ignore major issues in the community, particularly when ESPN starts to look like CNN. In 2015 retired NBA all-star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar released a column in Time Magazine titled, “The Importance of Athlete Activists.” Abdul-Jabbar asserts that an individual’s vocation does not disqualify their opinion and their voice on major issues. Many athletes represent a socio-economic phenomenon as individuals who grew up in marginalized, underprivileged societies, and were thrust into positions of privilege over night. This perspective is invaluable to developing change as the first person narrative of athletes who have lived through these difficulties can provide a voice for communities that are otherwise unheard. Our country places a high value on representation and the right to be heard regardless of your income, social status, or race. Athlete activists have chosen to use their voices to amplify the conditions of others so that these values may better care for all people. Jabbar stated,

“Democracy is not a solo concert; it’s a choir of voices blending to create a beautiful sound. Sure, there’s a discordant note now and then, someone gets aggressively pitchy, but even those sounds help the rest of us harmonize. We are hearing the voices of these brave athletes and it is beautiful.”

LeBron James and Kareem Abdul- Jabbar are not alone in their bold activism. Athletes across the country are posting their frustrations on social media, participating in marches, and standing in solidarity with hurting communities.These athletes have refused to allow their influence to be confined to their athletic ability, and they are speaking out as socially conscious members of the community. Reflecting on his work in Akron LeBron stated, “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead. I want kids in Northwest Ohio…to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business…Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”



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