It’s a powerful sentiment, knowing this time we’re currently enveloped in is going to be ripped open, read, and discussed for future generations. The events surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner have ignited a powerful dialogue in this country, and as each passing week fills the lines of yet to be written history books, we see something we haven’t in quite some time: athletes taking a stand and responding with action. It’s a welcome sight, because prior to this year, the majority of athlete activism either lived behind closed doors or within the confines of 140 characters.
But whether it’s members of the St. Louis Rams making the “Hands up, Don’t shoot” gesture as they entered the field in tribute to Mike Brown, or Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls donning a shirt with Eric Garner’s last words “I Can’t Breathe” during warmups, athletes are really starting to flex their activist muscle, a muscle that’s been looking like a fettuccine noodle for way too long. But the most important flex came from arguably the most polarizing athlete in the world, Cleveland’s own, LeBron James.
Yes, Rose was the first in the NBA to tribute Eric Garner, but when LeBron joined on the hardwood in silent protest, the athlete activism movement automatically shifted into high gear. Although Rose is a star, when the greatest player in the entire sport makes a move like that, people really begin to take notice, and more importantly, people really begin to react.
And react they have. Since LeBron wore “I Can’t Breathe” across his chest last Monday, the domino effect has been in full swing. Kobe Bryant, another NBA titan, also wore the same t-shirt during warm ups with his teammates (including Jeremy Lin, the first non-African American professional athlete to do so). In the NFL, DeSean Jackson played a game in cleats covered with Garner’s final words. And most notably, activism trickled down to the collegiate ranks, with the Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team donning “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during their warm ups as well. Now, obviously LeBron isn’t 100% behind all of these acts, but his participation definitely played a huge factor.
It’s been missing for so long in sports. The factor of having the most prominent athlete in the world with the loudest voice, actually stepping up and using that voice for something greater than themselves. Unfortunately looking back over the past couple of decades, that voice has been nothing short of a whisper. And it’s that silence that has predictably forced every conversation about athletes and activism back to the same handful of people. Yes, Muhammad Ali stood by his religious principles and refused to be inducted into the U.S. army during the Vietnam War. Yes, at the 1968 Olympics Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist as an act of protest for human rights. Yes, Bill Russell marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke out about civil rights in a racially charged Boston. But as respectable and historic as these athletes are, it’s saddening that these (and a few others such as Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, etc.) have been our only examples of prominent athletes using their voice.
Thankfully, that drought has come to an end. Whether it’s by saying he wouldn’t play another game as long as Donald Sterling still owned the Clippers, or by posting a picture of him wearing a black hoodie with the hashtag #WeWantJustice in tribute to Trayvon Martin, LeBron James has finally broken the chains of silence his predecessors have been shackled by for way too long.
He could’ve easily followed the path of Michael Jordan, who although had the entire world in the palm of his hand, never once took real action in attempt to change it for the better. Who in 1990 when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Black Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in a North Carolina state senate race against Jesse Helms (a man that opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday and was allegedly tied to groups sending black voters threats of jail during the campaign), Jordan’s response was simply, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” That endorsement driven mentality that Jordan possessed, and the monetary success that came along with it, was the same mentality that was emulated by the next generation of superstars such as Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods in their prime. And although LeBron has plenty of reasons to emulate it as well, the 42 million he’s earned in endorsements in 2014 to be exact, he’s proving that contrary to popular belief, it isn’t all about the benjamins.
Rather, LeBron’s proving it is all about leadership, understanding the influence an athlete possesses, and most importantly, it is all about standing up for what you believe in. LeBron will go down as one of the greatest to ever shoot a basketball no doubt, but it’s his effect on athletic activism that just might resonate above anything else.
Only time will tell, but until that time comes LeBron, rumble, young man rumble.