Commentary: LeBron James speaking out on Ahmaud Arbery’s death shows how he rises above Michael Jordan
Jordan was the most popular person on the planet and could have shifted public opinions, maybe even policies, with just a word or two. But racism, sweatshops, poverty, inequality — those were problems for somebody else.
Activist is probably not how LeBron James would choose to describe himself.
A basketball player, of course. A businessman and media mogul, too. A husband, father and proud son, both of his mother and Akron, Ohio, would certainly make his list.
But James recognizes that, much as he might prefer to define himself, he still lives in a world that will define him as it does so many other people of color, particularly young black men. Which makes his choice to be an activist really no choice at all.
As people around the country expressed outrage earlier this week at the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was out for a jog Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Georgia, when two white men chased him down and shot him, James joined in with passionate posts on Instagram and Twitter on Wednesday night.
“We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? No man fr ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!!” James wrote, ending the post with the hashtags #StayWoke and #ProfiledCauseWeAreSimplyBlack and two tear-faced emojis.
Only after video of the shooting went public this week did local officials show interest in pursuing the case. On Thursday night, the father and son involved in the shooting were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault.
Arbery would have been 26 on Friday.
That James weighed in on Arbery’s killing was not a surprise. His social consciousness and willingness to use his considerable platform to call out the systemic racism that persists in this country are as much a part of his legacy as his three NBA titles and four MVP awards.
He has spoken out when killings of blacks by police and vigilantes have gone unpunished. He has criticized President Donald Trump for his hateful rhetoric and discriminatory policies. His support for at-risk students in Akron has been so far-reaching it required creation of a new public school.
But James’ voice resonated louder than usual this time, given that he raised it just a few days after Michael Jordan defended his refusal to take a stand on, well, anything when he was a player.
Jordan was the most popular person on the planet in his heyday and could have shifted public opinions, maybe even policies, with just a word or two. But racism, sweatshops, poverty, inequality — those were problems for somebody else.
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” Jordan said in Episode 5 of “The Last Dance.”
“But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft,” he added.
“Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
Like Ali and Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell before him, James doesn’t believe he has that luxury.
Wealth and fame haven’t protected James from racism. His skills aren’t enough to lessen some people’s hate. He sees people of color harassed and killed for doing everyday activities — driving, playing a video game, jogging — and knows it could just as easily have been him.
Or, worse, someone in his family.
James has spoken eloquently of the fear he has for his children, a fear every person of color feels deeply but one very few white people acknowledge, let alone try to comprehend.
If James doesn’t speak up, why should anyone else? If he doesn’t push for change, who will?
“Hate in America, especially for African Americans, is living every day,” James said in 2017, after someone painted a racial slur on the gate outside his house before the NBA Finals began.
“No matter how much money you have, how famous you are, how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We have a long way to go … until we feel equal.”
Be like Mike? James can never, and the world is the better for it.
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