LeBron James took to the floor in December, 2014 in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center donning a black shirt with white writing which read, “I can’t breathe” which gave added attention to the death and last words of Eric Garner who died in July after a confrontation with a New York Police Department officer which was caught on tape and sparked national outrage that already existed due to the controversial deaths of other African American men like Trayvon Martin, Ernest Satterwhite and Dontre Hamilton between 2012-2014.
For most, this was jarring. It wasn’t so much a feeling of outrage when it came to police brutality – something shared between all races, religions and ages – but it was the fact that one of the largest sports personalities in the world was being so outspoken about the issue despite the potential backlash he could face from fans and brands alike who prefer our sports heroes in a contemporary context to be seen and rarely heard.
This wasn’t the first time James had turned to fashion as a means of protest. He and his Miami Heat teammates all donned black hoodies in March 2012 to protest the death of Trayvon Martin and used hashtags like #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped and #WeWantJustice to bring awareness to the issue.
While the Twitter comment section was ripe with dissenting opinions on both George Zimmerman’s right to self-defense versus Martin’s right not to be gunned down senselessly, there was a general consensus that James should “stick to playing basketball.”
Despite the backlash, the Miami Heat were steadfast in support of James and his teammates.
“We support our players and join them in hoping that their images and our logo can be part of the national dialogue and can help in our nation’s healing,” an official statement from the Miami Heat read.
Other players like Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire echoed the imagery that the Heat had put out, commenting, “I am Trayvon Martin.”
Even President Obama took note of James’s decision. “You know, I think LeBron did the right thing,” Obama told People in an interview. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness.”
While an athlete surely expects increased vitriol when posting anything remotely controversial on their social media accounts, James and co. probably didn’t figure that one of the brightest stars of the league would chime in with a negative response.
During an interview for the April 4 issue of The New Yorker, Kobe Bryant said of the Heat tribute to Trayvon Martin, “I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American. That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.”
Critics quickly piled on Bryant for his unwillingness to take a hardline stance when it came to Martin’s murder.
Jamilah King of Color Lines especially took umbrage with Bryant’s critique, writing, “What sets Bryant apart is his stingy insistence on clinging to a ‘post-racial’ identity, this very old, conservative notion that black people should not be treated differently in this country — despite all of the evidence, like Martin’s death, that they are. People didn’t stand up for Trayvon Martin just because he was a black boy, they did it because his death so sharply illustrated the dangers of being a black boy in America.”
Ultimately, Bryant fired off a series of tweets to address the backlash, noting that after all the facts had been gathered, “Travon Martin was wronged THATS [sic] my opinion and thats what I believe the FACTS showed. The system did not work. One more time for the tweeting impaired this is NOT about legal debate or sides It’s about equality on ALL fronts. Critical or not. We’ve had a ton of convo the last few days about a BIG issue. That’s always a good thing. Luv to ALL who tweeted thoughts.”
One-time ESPN columnist, Jason Whitlock, summed up the spat, charging that this was the first time Kobe Bryant had said anything remotely controversial in his NBA career – one that he asserted was “deteriorating” – while James “is at the peak of his career and fame. He took a courageous stand on a hot-button topic two years ago at age 27 seemingly without the approval of Nike or the Heat. James used his platform for the benefit of Martin and Martin’s family when he had something to lose.”
When one thinks of sports stars who transcend statistics and enter into the realm where they could be considered deities, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan’s names are the first to come to mind. Despite their excellence and universal acclaim, their sociopolitical leanings reveal one ethos where you “say it with your chest,” while another is shrouded in secrecy for fear of offending constituents and opponents alike.
With Muhammad Ali’s passing at the age of 74, it has once again sparked the debate as to what role athletes should play in the shaping of policy and vocalizing movements that may not ever be as impactful as the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, but still speak to issues of rampant violence, prejudice and white privilege.
Ali himself was embroiled in the fight for racial equality. After returning as Olympic Gold Medalist to Louisville in 1960, he thought his heroism in the face of America’s real enemies – the Soviets – would endear him into the hearts of white Southerners. He was wrong.
“I went downtown that day, had my big old medal on and went in a restaurant,” Ali remembered. “See, at that time, like, things weren’t integrated; black folks couldn’t eat downtown. And I went downtown, I sat down, and I said, ‘You know, a cup of coffee, a hot dog.’ He said—the lady said, ‘We don’t serve Negroes.’ I was so mad, I said, ‘I don’t eat them, either. Just give me a cup of coffee and a hamburger.’ You know, and I said, ‘I’m the Olympic gold medal winner. Three days ago, I fought for this country in Rome. I won the gold medal. And I’m going to eat.’ The manager—heard her tell the manager, and she says—he said, ‘Well, I’m not the—I’m not the man—he’s got to go out.’ Anyway, I didn’t raise—they put me out. And I had to leave that restaurant, in my home town, where I went to church and served in their Christianity, and fought—my daddy fought in all the wars. Just won the gold medal and couldn’t eat downtown. I said, ‘Something’s wrong.'”
Ali lost three years of his boxing prime after filing a conscientious objector status and announcing his refusal to fight in Vietnam – citing his own Muslim faith as a major factor as well as the continued mistreatment of African Americans on the home front despite their heroism on the battlefield.
While most interpreted his stance as “anti-troops” and “anti-American,” few would choose to focus on the reality that was was actually “pro-peace.”
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, and rape and kill my mother and father. Why would I want to—shoot them for what? I got to go shoot them, those little poor little black people, little babies and children, women; how can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
His at-the-time polarizing viewpoint ultimately cost him tens of millions of dollars in endorsement opportunities.
The vast majority of Ali’s out-of-ring fortune would be amassed from his company GOAT LLC, which earned between $4 million-$7 million USD in annual revenue through endorsement deals with top brands like adidas and Electronic Arts.
Ali and his wife would eventually sell an 80 percent stake to CKX Inc., in 2006 for $50 million USD which landed him on Forbes’ Top 100 Celebrities list in 2006 after not making the top 100 the year prior.
In the end, the man known for his gift of gab, didn’t own phrases attributed him like “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee,” “Thrilla In Manila” and “Greatest Of All Time” after Authentic Brands Group assumed all of Ali’s intellectual property in 2013.
One can’t help but wonder if Ali had been able to cash in from an endorsement standpoint during his fighting career, if he and his family would have been able to control his likeness in his waning years.
If Muhammad Ali exuded “hot takes,” Michael Jordan often let his play do all the talking. That isn’t to say that His Airness didn’t have strong opinions, it’s that he always saw that if he leaned too far to the left or too far to the right, he would alienate consumers.
In 1990, Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte, was attempting to unseat the race-baiting Senator Jesse Helms – who opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
Helms’s antics weren’t merely a juxtaposition between the thoughts of a Republican versus that of a Democrat. Rather, Helms still had pre-Civil Rights attitudes engrained in his public service.
Gantt’s campaign reached out to Jordan for support given his ties to the state after attending the University of North Carolina where he brought home a championship to Tobacco Road.
Jordan declined, reportedly telling a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Years later, ESPN columnist LZ Grandson wrote, “For decades Helms antagonized the black community for sport on the Senate floor. And in that moment when people expected Jordan, the Ali of his time, to use his considerable influence to fight, he kept quiet to sell more shoes. That’s just a hard pill to swallow, even 20 years later.”
Early in Tiger Woods’s career, he and Nike released a commercial titled, “Hello World,” where it ran down Woods’s golf accolades on screen, before also mentioning, “There are still courses in the United States I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?”
Following a backlash, Woods never really pressed the issue of inclusiveness in golf any further despite the course he is most known for – Augusta National – not having an African-American member until 1990 and a woman member until 2012.
“Moral jellyfish,” Dave Meggyesy, a linebacker and antiwar activist with the St. Louis Cardinals in the ’60s, labeled Jordan and Woods.
Several days before the 2012 Presidential Election, LeBron James urged voters to get out and give President Barack Obama a second term. Deadspin compiled a list of numerous tweets where people wanted James to “simply play basketball and keep quiet.”
This is a common thread that binds all athletes together; this notion that they should accept the financial windfall of lucrative contracts as a supplement for having an opinion on the state of the world. It’s been particularly enhanced with the advent of social media, where angry fans can lob 140 character molotov cocktails on a person’s doorstep in an attempt to keep them in their athletic lanes.
In recent years, there were several occasions in which athletes could have been more vocal in bringing attention to issues that transcend sports but still existed in that realm – perhaps no bigger than the Winter Olympics in Sochi – where Russia’s package of federal anti-gay laws that passed in late 2013 had made it one of the worst places in the world for the LGBT community.
Despite President Obama announcing a U.S. delegation that included three openly gay athletes – tennis champion Billie Jean King, Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano – the major superstars of the world remained quiet on the issue.
“Companies are a now a little more willing to allow endorsers speak their mind,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
It seems the issue that has offered the most social media transparency has to do with paying college athletes – which although based in merit – seems more to do with financial gain and advocacy for would-be millionaires as opposed to sweeping reform for millions of other people looking for a change to minimum wage practices.
In a twist of fate, it was what one professional athlete, former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, didn’t say that made the most noise in recent years when it came to media and athlete interactions.
Lynch didn’t trust the media. Whereas there is spin for even the most minor comments as it relates to on-the-field play, Lynch was well-aware that anything he said that was remotely controversial would be used in thousands of think-pieces whose intentions were to bury him. Simply put, the personal risks weren’t worth it to him despite threats of fines from the NFL.
The public can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect professional athletes to “stick to sports,” then deride them when they choose to forgo the banality of leading questions like, “so, what did you see out there?”
Perhaps that’s why Muhammad Ali was the perfect mouthpiece. He excelled at his craft, was comfortable in the limelight, but also unafraid when the spotlight became more like an interrogation than the glow of adulation.
With the upcoming Presidential election expected to fracture the United States even further – and issues at play like religious freedom, access to the American dream and sweeping immigration reform – there will undoubtedly be high-profile athletes who fall on opposite ends of the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump debate. To stay quiet on this one would show a complete indifference.
Although Ali never mentioned Donald Trump by name, he did echo strong sentiments when it came to his policies.
In the wake of the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two ISIS-affiliated terrorists, Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Ali issued a statement soon after under the headline, “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States,” saying, “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
With Ali gone, the challenge has been levied. Who is unafraid of sullying their name in order to speak out for what they believe in?