Earl Ofari Hutchinson
If Lebron James had a nickel for every time he’s been told to shut up and just stick to dribbling and shooting the ball, he’d never have to collect a penny from the Lakers. He’d be rich beyond his wildest dreams. AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the latest in the long train of James’s critics to tell him just play ball and say nothing about politics.
As he’s done each time, he’s been hit with the jibe of keep your trap shut about racial injustice, police abuse, politics, and social issues, James hit back hard. He made clear he’ll use his celebrity, superstardom, and public acclaim to continue to speak out on social wrongs.
James is hardly the first name Black athlete to be told to stick to shooting hoops or running the ball. It’s been a ritual complaint and demand made on Black athletes from Jack Johnson through Jackie Robinson through Muhammad Ali through Curt Flood through Colin Kaepernick. Memories are still fresh of the wrath that fell on the heads of Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they dared have temerity to raise a black gloved Black Power fist on the victory stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
They, like Johnson, Ali and Kaepernick, caught holy hell. They were roundly hectored, assailed, and virtually run out of their sport. Always the knock was you’re making millions, you’ve got fame, glory, and status, beyond the wildest dreams of most Blacks. Yet you blow it by voicing uncomfortable truths about race.
Close behind this knock is the canard that sports, and politics simply don’t or shouldn’t mix. It’s escape, entertainment and a pleasing diversion, stop mucking it up dragging talk of social problems into it. Sports fans don’t plunk down their hard-earned dollars to hear any sermonizing about police shootings of unarmed Blacks, or watch athletes take knees while the national anthem is playing, or spout about politics.
When you put on the uniform and take the field, court, or step in the ring any opinions you have about social wrongs keep them to yourself. Fans simply aren’t there to see and hear you talk about them especially since the majority of fans are white. They supposedly aren’t thrilled when a James, an Ali, or a Kaepernick spout off about say such incendiary things as vote suppression or the plight of the poor.
For countless years, Black athletes got the message of stay silent on social issues and just play ball. Whenever, the temptation arose to go off message and utter something that faintly smacked of political protest, there were hard reminders to think hard and long about it. The reminders included the loss of lucrative commercial endorsements, TV appearances, and big pay day contracts. A bevy of sports agents, coaches, managers, and, of course, team owners were always there to sternly warn of the risk of being tagged as outspoken on racial injustice.
Johnson, Ali, Flood, and Kaepernick were tossed out as the brutal examples of Black athletes who forgot their place and look at the terrible price they paid. True, that Robinson and Ali were later hailed as American heroes for taking stands. But that came years, even decades, after their careers in the ring or the playing field were over. Their outspokenness was no longer considered a threat because it could not potentially damage ticket and product sales.
Even Kaepernick the latest in the line of the outspoken Black athlete gets much acclaim and praise for taking a stand. But again, the praise comes after his career is seemingly behind him. And even while heaping praise on him, not one NFL team has backed up their sudden admiration for his courage by offering him a spot on a roster. Kaepernick might be praised but the record still shows, he is effectively banned from the NFL.
Lebron from time to time takes heat as Ali, Robinson and Kaepernick did precisely because of his outsized athlete status. Yet, while he takes heat, supposedly times have enough for him to voice his opinions without fear of retribution. Maybe, but James still must carefully pick his spots and what he says. A blunt speak your mind James or any other Black athlete is still an existential threat to sport.
In part because he or she crosses the rigid artificial line between sports and politics. And, in greater part because athletes, especially Black athletes, or put on a pedestal, seen as virtual demi-gods by millions of young and not so young persons. Their words carry import. So, there’s always the danger that the outsized acclaim and attention they garner, if muddied with talk of racism and politics can pose peril to the billions in dollars sport rakes in. It’s this peril that will always raise hackles and draw rebuke.
James just happens to be the latest to find out that there will always be those who will love to tell him to shut up and just play ball.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. His political affairs commentaries can be found weekly on thehutchinsonreport.net.