LeBron James, the best and most famous basketball player on the planet, wore a warmup shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” before the Cleveland Cavaliers faced the Nets on Monday night in Brooklyn. In this one act, he perhaps became the biggest sports star ever to publicly take on a social issue.
James is the latest, and so far biggest, name converging into the crescendo of athletes breaking with the tradition of avoiding any political stances — or saying anything with even the slightest political tones.
“I can’t breathe” were the last audible words spoken by Eric Garner before his tragic death at the hands of an NYPD police officer in Staten Island, N.Y., earlier this year.
In November, St. Louis Rams players ran onto the field before a game with their hands up in a show of solidarity with protesters of the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
As millionaire athletes continue to become brands unto themselves, they have begun to publicly support social causes, breaking with a tradition epitomized by Michael Jordan’s 1990 comment that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Are these multi-millionaire athletes developing a social conscience all of a sudden, or are they more likely taking on causes they always believed in but just never spoke about?
Given the majority of athlete’s backgrounds, these are causes they have always felt strongly about, except now they are speaking out publicly on them because they are not afraid of the message being misinterpreted or the stance hurting their brand.
Jordan was quoted after responding to a question about whether he would publicly support Harvey Gantt, a former Charlotte, N.C., mayor who was challenging Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for his seat. Helms infamously opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’.s birthday a national holiday and was reported to have made other bigoted comments throughout his career.
Jordan had reportedly been approached by the Gantt campaign to see if he would support him in the race against the racist Helms; he declined.
At the time, Jordan was the most famous athlete — and maybe the most influential African-American man in the United States.
A united front
James’ fellow Cavaliers, including star point guard Kyrie Irving, joined him in the silent protest that spoke volumes.
In 2012, the National Basketball Association was nearly 80 percent black, according to reports. Its stands to reason that these mostly young, black men would find common cause with others who are highlighting, and have been victims of, police brutality and violence in communities of majority minorities.
The platform athletes have today might not be a spotlight as it was pre-Twitter and Facebook in 1990, but that doesn’t mean their activism will be any less influential. In the Internet age, it’s likely to be even more influential as any stand someone as famous LeBron James takes today can be disseminated and found all over the world by anyone who’s looking.