King James and the Spirit of ’68

Could LeBron's political awakening revive activism among athletes?

But one notable exception is Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, who told the Miami Herald that he couldn’t ignore this year’s presidential campaign. “How can you not pay attention to what’s going on?” he said. “It’s historic. As a kid you’re told you can do anything, just put your mind to it, and for a long time, for women, for blacks, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Now, Hillary made that dream a reality. When my daughter says, ‘I want to be president,’ it’s like, ‘Yeah, you have a shot.’ Same for my son. He can be president one day.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that athletes should share their political opinions. Jeff Pearlman, an ESPN columnist, questions whether athletes have the brain power to comprehend politics. “There is a curious, insightful athlete out there somewhere,” he writes in an online diatribe that’s meant to be funny. “Three or four, even. But when push comes to shove, no population in society is less qualified to guide voters than pro athletes. Not doctors, not lawyers, not garbage men, dogcatchers, dishwashers, librarians, sportswriters—no one.”

Horsefeathers. If that’s so, why are they paid so royally to sell stuff? There’s only one essential difference between LeBron selling a president to the public than him selling Sprite or Bubble-Yum. It costs him to do the former, and he banks on the latter. So it’s a marvelous turn of events to see that James recently took some of those earnings and donated $20,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund, a committee set up by Obama and the party to support the candidate’s campaign. What this really means is that LeBron, who went straight from high school to the NBA, has educated himself on politics, global events and economics—topics not usually debated inside the white lines on a basketball court.

LeBron’s political activism comes as a marked departure from Michael Jordan’s cynical consumerism. At the height of Jordan’s playing career, he refused to publicly support Democrat Harvey Gantt’s effort to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms in a contentious and close North Carolina race. “Republicans buy shoes, too,” Jordan famously said.

Jordan was no fool. He knew what he was doing, just as he did at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 where he led the Nike-sponsored players on a victorious Dream Team basketball squad to cover their Reebok logo with the American flag during the gold medal ceremony.

And don’t tell me that politics doesn’t mix with sports. Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told me that the Olympics have always been about selling flag-waving nationalism, which is a form of politics. But more than politics, the games are now global economics.

Where sports collide with common sense is when multi-million dollar marketing campaigns are placed in jeopardy by an athlete exercising his mind—over his body. This was the ultimate Jordan rule: Protect what is important—Nike’s investment—and never speak up.

LeBron’s entry into the political waters is an admirable start. And given the recent past of athletes’ apathy, it’s enough to make me want to cheer him on.

Sam Fulwood III is a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and lecturer at Case Western Reserve University.