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LeBron James is hearing the silly noise again, and all it does is make him dig deeper, stand firmer, speak louder.
One year ago it was conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on Fox News advising LeBron to “shut up and dribble” instead of speaking out against racial and social injustice.
Now it is international soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic lecturing LeBron on what the parameters of his conscience should be.
“[LeBron] is phenomenal at what he does, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” the AC Milan striker said in an interview in Sweden. “Do what you’re good at. Stay out of politics. Just do what you do best because [the rest] doesn’t look good.”
Politics. When did that become the word for standing up for what you believe is right? Why has speaking out for social justice and voters’ rights become a font of controversy?
Ibrahimovic doubled down this week, saying, “Athletes unite the world, politics divide us “ — again misrepresenting social conscience as political, in much the same way critics misrepresented Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem as anti-American instead of as a protest of police violence against unarmed Black people.
Ibrahimovic reopens the dumb notion of “stick to sports!” as more and more athletes, the L.A. Lakers’ LeBron seemingly always at the forefront, use their platform and voice for positive change.
The message from activist athletes is simple: We are here to do more than entertain you.
LeBron needing to shout (again) that he will not shut up and dribble comes as the NBA prepares to take its All-Star Game break in Atlanta.
Atlanta, that Blackest of major American cities, the one that got out the vote in numbers enough to turn Georgia from red to blue and turn the presidential election.
Atlanta, where outspoken activism by the city’s WNBA team, the Dream, forced out white right-wing owner Kelly Loeffler, the state senator.
It also comes at a time when a movement is born to change the NBA’s iconic silhouette logo from that of white 1960s star Jerry West to that of Kobe Bryant, the superstar who died tragically in a helicopter crash in January 2020. Bryant’s widow Vanessa and league star Kyrie Irving are out front on the suggestion.
I have zero issue with an updated logo whose silhouette better reflects the indisputable influence of Black people in the league’s history on the court and influence off it, beyond it.
A Michael Jordan likeness might be better; certainly less controversial. Heck, if he weren’t still active (and showing little sign of any letdown at age 36), I might even suggest the new logo silhouette should be that of LeBron — for his greatness with the basketball but as much for his beacon’s role in social activism.
Ask me what current athlete might merit the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For me, an easy question.
It is not a revelation in multitasking, the idea that LeBron can dribble and speak out for positive change at the same time.
It is why, as he makes his case as the greatest player in the history of the NBA, he also elevates as one of the most important athletes we’ve ever had in terms of off-court influence. The awakening of that social conscience in part came in Miami, as the Heat stood out in support for the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Miami teen unjustifiably killed nine years ago last week by a security guard.
LeBron does more than speak about the need for change. He sees to it happening.
His “More Than a Vote” initiative drew more than 42,000 volunteers to work at polling places during the November elections, helping protect voting rights and encourage turnout among Black and young voters.
The “I Promise School” he founded in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, now has more than 450 students in third through sixth grades. During the pandemic shutdown, James made sure meals still were delivered to the kids’ homes.
His affordable housing project for 50 families has just broken ground. In December he announced plans for “House Three Thirty” (Akron’s area code), an initiative to offer affordable health care, job training and a community center.
Would Zlatan Ibrahimovic call that James getting involved in “politics”?
The community he is tangibly lifting would call it getting involved in people.
Ibrahimovic, by the way, was born in Sweden to a Bosnian father and a Croatian mother, his paternal blood and his surname are Bosnian. In 2018 he complained of suffering “undercover racism” in Sweden because of his name.
The latest Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) capsule on Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Shows little improvement in protecting people’s rights. LGBT people continue to face discrimination and violence. The state fails to protect women from gender-based violence. A decade after provisions in the Constitution were ruled discriminatory by Europe’s top human rights court, they have yet to be changed. Media freedom remains compromised and the pace of war crimes prosecutions has slowed.”
You know what it sounds like that country could use?
Maybe a few influential athletes who speak that language, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, finding their spine, using their voice, and speaking up just like LeBron James.
A few more athletes who understand their platform gives them so much to accomplish beyond sports.