“Stick to sports.” Or, indeed, “Shut up and dribble.” That notorious order was issued to basketball uber-star LeBron James earlier this year by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, after he had the temerity to be “talking politics” when asked about them.
James did not shut up, but the new LA Laker has now put up: announcing the foundation of the remarkable I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The school will be used by 240 at-risk eight, nine and ten-year-olds, with a series of adaptations and special programmes available to address their particular needs. More on that later. First of all: why does it seem that so many more sporting figures are speaking out on social issues, and why does it bother some people so much? And how does it all interact with the media and commercial profiles that these individuals have so carefully constructed?
The debate over whether sports and politics mix is a matter for another column – a short one, probably, because they do and always have and always will. Sports stars have protested and taken stands for generations – some made their legends in the process – but it has been some time since the practice felt so widespread.
Being an elite athlete often means being an avatar for the dreams and emotions of others
There are a few reasons for this. Social media is one, the altered currency of digital news-gathering another. The formula for algorithmic success in headline writing is often ‘Talking Point A plus Talking Person B’, so getting any comment is imperative.
Then there is the vacuum created by the headlong sprint to the margins in mainstream discourse – self-serving political leadership by alternate reality. Any thoughtful, informed and empathetic contribution to the debate is hungrily consumed, even if its source is sport or pop culture.
For those competing, there is also good reason to state your own case in polarised times. Being an elite athlete often means being an avatar for the dreams and emotions of others, a blank slate on to which any number of feelings can be sketched. It’s part of what makes athletes such powerful forces in marketing but it also leaves them personally vulnerable to exploitation.
Standing next to a head of state or a flag is a relatively vanilla act of politeness and protocol in many contexts. Yet it is also a gesture that can lead to misguided assumption, or wilful misrepresentation. The same reading of what a team represents can be framed to wildly divergent ends. French success at this year’s Fifa World Cup was celebrated as an example of strength through diversity. The failure of a German side feted in similar terms four years ago has been jumped on by the far-right as an example of the shortcomings of multiculturalism.
In that environment, being passive can feel like being complicit. Witness the initial closing of ranks by National Football League (NFL) players around Colin Kaepernick and others who followed him in #TakeAKnee protests when they came under attack. Those protesters had taken a different view of their country into a setting where people were not used to dissent, but where a distinct strand of patriotism had nonetheless been celebrated.
Colin Kaepernick may have decided that, on balance, his cause was of greater value than his career
The case of German soccer star Mesut Özil is interesting in this respect. Born in Germany and of Turkish descent, the midfielder and teammate Ilkay Gundogan met in London with the controversial president of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, before the Fifa World Cup and the Turkish elections. An image of the trio was circulated and the episode became variously seen as a tacit endorsement of an ever-more authoritarian leader, an act of startling naivety, or an act of betrayal.
Both players were castigated but neither spoke out until after the tournament, allowing negative interpretations to fester. After the tournament, however, Özil snapped, issuing a coruscating statement about the lack of support he’d received from German soccer’s DFB and the bitter realities of his life in the national team. Meeting Erdogan, he said, was not a reflection of his allegiances but a simple measure of respect to his grandparents, but the fallout left him feeling unable to represent the country of his birth in the current circumstances.
Özil will no doubt have considered his own circumstances before such a provocative move. His 30th birthday is approaching. As a World Cup winner, his greatest days in a Germany shirt are most likely behind him. He is well established and well remunerated as the star turn at his club, Premier League side Arsenal. He has political capital to stake at relatively low risk. Colin Kaepernick has lost more but may have decided that, on balance, his cause was of greater value than his career. But in each case there is another factor to consider: credibility, which both had earned and could demonstrate.
Which brings us back to LeBron James. Perhaps no athlete in the world is as popular or has the kind of political capital accrued by the NBA’s figurehead, sport’s equivalent to Tom Hanks or George Clooney. But his intervention in Akron has also been masterfully constructed. He has recognised his significance as an inspirational symbol, and that he is in a position as a promising entrepreneur to build as well as talk. The school he has developed is a telling combination of informed public policy and the anecdotal weight of his own youth.
It may be that more and more athletes find in the future that they must have as much control over their political profile as any other part of their public image. They may see it as their responsibility. The challenge is to respond to that need as LeBron James has: with intelligence, authority and grace.