Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Professional athletes have worn "I Can't Breathe" messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, those are just the names that the “liberal” media decided to highlight. When I first saw the video of Alton Sterling’s death I thought it was the anniversary of some other horrible incident. Another black man seemingly murdered without cause or resolution. That’s how common these cases have become. They smash into each other, just introducing a new name, new city and new hashtag.
There’s always a common social media out cry replete with cleverly worded memes meant to pull at your heartstrings, shocking statistics and threats of demonstrations or revolutions. But, this sentiment always seems to fade. There’s a dearth of obvious actionable political leadership not constrained by the constructs of governments and there was a time that leadership would come from the people who had a platform to lead.
The OJ documentary struck a chord with me and not for the quality of the work or the sensationalized nature of the trial of the century. No, episode one of OJ: Made in America was unique because it showed you how even at a young age the fuel that propelled OJ forward for most of his life as a young professional athlete was his image. How HE was perceived by society.
This irritated me as I watched for several reasons, but chiefly among them were these:
1.) He became the poster child for the apolitical counter-cultural athlete during a time period that saw other athletes of his stature stand up and give voice to the voiceless.
2.) It worked. Being an “Uncle Tom” worked for OJ.
Simpson became a household name not only because of how talented he was on the football field but how malleable he was to a public that grew increasingly tired of hardened political stances everywhere they turned. They wanted sports to be refuge from what they saw on television, read in the newspaper and saw when they walked out of their front door.
While OJ was doing this and proving to America (specifically “white america”) that he was one of the “good ones,” athletes like Jim Brown, Muhammed Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and several others decided that being them wasn’t just enough. It wasn’t just enough for them to play a sport, receive the adoration, praise and attention from millions and do nothing with this platform. Their character didn’t allow it. They were, in some instances, shielded from what so many other black people encountered on a day to day basis. Shielded by money, fame and obsessions with winning. However, it didn’t matter to these men. Men who, no matter what you may think of them, now decided that at the peak of their powers it was better to speak out than remain silent. They would boycott, hold, press conferences, march, give incendiary interviews and never let the public forget what they stood for every time they appeared on television.
What would they do if in the 21st century they read that unarmed black men were being killed across America ?
This was why those moments in the OJ documentary stuck with me. Imagine if Lebron James, Cam Newton, Floyd Mayweather, Russell Wilson, Steph Curry, Serena/Venus Williams and Tiger Woods held a joint press conference after another unprovoked shooting and said – we’re done with your games and distractions, you’re going to hear us.
But no, his doesn’t happen.
It’s because the blueprint for the modern athlete cared about his image and winning. To him nothing was ‘Bigger than Basketball’. That blueprint of course is Michael Jordan.
This is the man people use to end every sports argument, the living embodiment of a trump card (more than likely a sociopath). When asked if he would endorse a black Democratic candidate running for a North Carolina senate seat in 1990 he said the now infamous quote “Republicans buy shoes too”. This black candidate was of course running against Jesse Helms. A republican who opposed Martin Luther King Day and held a 16-day filibuster in opposition of honoring doctor King. SIXTEEN DAYS!
With that, the modern athlete was born. Selling shoes, endorsements, commercials, being the face of the league was and is more important than any movement or political stance. Michael Jordan taught them and when kids said they wanted to “Be like Mike” they meant it. You don’t become a billionaire athlete taking difficult nuanced stances that you’d have to explain to a media that just wants you to shut-up and be a dumb jock.
When you’re a superstar athlete, a Lebron, Steph, KD or Cam, you get taken behind the curtain where few go and you’re told just how special and different you are. You’re told how important it is to win a title and cement your legacy. Standing up for principle and damaging your commercial appeal and harming their brand just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. It seems like such a millennial thing, to be concerned about image, but in truth it’s the old school athletes you idolize so much (with exceptions of course) who were the ones who dared not speak a word on social/political issues. The hip-hop era changed this, but as long as the most successful athlete remained entrenched in his stance not to say a word during the 90’s or early 2000s, the only thing that seemed to matter in sports was winning.
It remained like this for seemingly the longest time…and then Trayvon Martin was murdered. The one athlete whose voice could resonate across sports decided to do something. Lebron James had spent all of his adult life under media scrutiny and the most controversial/hate inspiring thing he’d ever done was decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat. As trivial as that sounds, people really hated him for it. They still do to this day. His image was damaged, his brand was tarnished and even winning didn’t help. But he was liberated. The decision to join the Heat wasn’t just a basketball one, it was a signal to all professional athletes that you could choose your own destiny and not be governed by the whims of your billionaire employer. That self determination and player power were real constructs. It’s why the Heat were so important to not just sports but to show a culture that there was something more than the myopic idea of winning.
It’s when Lebron changed and he actually got better and was pushed to evolve in Miami. He started saying phrases like “bigger than basketball” and approached decisive games with attitude with phrases like “live with the result”. This photo above was carried across the world through multiple media outlets right at the germination of the Black Lives Matter movement. At a time where athletes had been speaking out sparsely.
For all the ills of social media this made something go viral that once would have once been confined to the specific cities where these incidents took place. Technology erased the distance between athletes and their fans and all of a sudden when tragedies happened their words weren’t just a surprise, they were expected. When Lebron James didn’t speak out loudly enough after the death of Tamir Rice, Rice’s mother criticized him harshly. He’d spent so much of his time speaking about his hometown and doing it for them but when the Rice family needed him he seemed to regress. It had already taken a hold though, and there was no turning back. Others would step up.
This was December. Since then, James completed perhaps his greatest NBA season defeating a team of Goliaths and captured his third title. All seemed good in James’ world and could go celebrate with abandon. Along the way, there was the Orlando shooting and Lebron at least acknowledged that things were happening in the world besides the Finals. Sports kept chugging along though. It was preparing for the coming NFL season, debating free agent calamities, discussing who got who in the NBA draft, The Euros, the Olympics and everything else. ESPN was in overdrive.
But then…Alton Sterling happened. Less that 24 hours later, Philando Castile happened.
I watched the Sterling family’s agonising press conference, and all I hear is silence from Steph Curry (always silent), Kevin Durant, Cam Newton and almost every other athlete we watched during the winter and spring months. All of a sudden I care less about super teams, and championships or who got traded where to who. Sports is a money generating scheme, I accept and I bought into it, I still do. It’s just that just today after those videos, I cared about it so much less. I wish the athletes these kids admire didn’t need to have their opinions on things like this market tested.
The Olympics are approaching and athletes from around a turbulent world are going to be on stage with the entire world watching. I just want to know if anyone there will feel the need to say something, anything, or will the brand be more important. If you want to see what a real legacy looks like, it’s not about titles or shoe deals or barber shop arguments.