Stick to ball

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Keith Allison, El Grafíco

Some American athletes receive almost as much attention for their social media presence and what they talk about in interviews as they do for their on-court or on-field performances. Conall Mac Dhonnagain considers whether a player’s stance on political issues of the time should colour our opinion of the athlete and why some athletes might choose to ‘stick to ball’.

At 35 years of age, Lebron James (LBJ) has won his 4th NBA Championship and his 4th Finals MVP, reigniting once again the "Greatest Of All Time" (or GOAT) debate.  Analysts will continuously compare the lists of accolades and on-court statistics of Michael Jordan (MJ) and LBJ over the coming months - Jordan won 6 Championships and 6 Finals MVPs with the Chicago Bulls; Lebron won 4 and 4 with 3 different teams. MJ was a better scorer; LBJ is a better passer. Air Jordan had more steals, The King has more triple-doubles. Neither side will win the debate, but the TV networks will make their money's worth. Then the same will happen next summer. Rinse, repeat. 

However, this year brings with it a twist to the annual debate: should the work each player has done off-court be part of the criteria? While both Lebron and Jordan embraced Hollywood fame, Lebron has decided to use his platform to advance activism and awareness. In the media, some of the King's work resembles a different basketball star with 'MJ' as his initials - Magic Johnson. 

On November 7th 1991, Magic stood at a podium in California, flanked by his former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then-Commissioner of the NBA David Stern, and LA Lakers' team owner Jerry Buss. Johnson announced his retirement from basketball that day, as he had tested positive for HIV. Magic persevered, faced his critics, and is today, almost as well-known for his advocacy work for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex as he was for his passing skills on the court. 

Both on-court in his league-leading assist numbers and off-court in his activism, Lebron seems like a superpowered Magic. The King possesses a talent that is rare among celebrities – he knows how to make every word count. He knows that tweeting an image of his team wearing hoodies with their heads bowed (with the hashtag "#WeAreTrayvonMartin") can speak for itself. He knows that not displaying a social justice message on his jersey would draw attention to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. He knows how to command respect because when he says anything, it's a big deal. 

Lebron displays a level of maturity in his media appearances that Jordan didn't quite possess. These qualities may be crucial in the modern NBA, where every grievance is amplified publically. However, Jordan came from a different time, where the league was more brash, more physical, and more politically conservative than it is now. 

The climate of the NBA in the 90s was more aligned with the modern NFL than with the modern NBA. Between the backlash faced by Colin Kaepernick after kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 and the boos that were received by a "Moment of Unity" before the opening game of this year’s NFL season, it is clear that political stances are not entirely welcome in American Football. 

The cause of the discrepancy between the NBA and NFL is uncertain, although it could be down to the sports themselves. The NBA has star-driven franchises, where talented players carry their teams to success. In contrast, NFL teams rely much more on their coaches – generally whoever draws up the better plays wins the game. In basketball, players hold the power; in football, coaches hold the roadmap to victory.

Although both the NBA and NFL feature a majority of black athletes (approximately 80% and 70% respectively), both leagues are coached by a majority of white men. In the NFL, less than 10% of coaches are black. While Lebron uses his power as a player to draw attention to social issues, top NFL coach Bill Belichick opted to shoot down political questions after Kaepernick’s famous kneel. 

In the 90s, two-time NBA champion and Chicago Bulls teammate of Jordan, Craig Hodges, tried to draw attention to grassroots political movements. After winning the championship in 1992, the Bulls visited the White House, where Hodges delivered a handwritten letter on racial and economic inequality to President Bush. Hodges was released by the Bulls that year at the age of 32, never to play in the NBA again. 

Although the reason for the Bulls' release of Hodges was never confirmed, his superstar teammate opted to avoid political comments. One could see Jordan's approach as conservative or selfish, but given the context of Hodges' release, it may have just been careful. Some people are able to handle public backlash for political stances – perhaps Jordan was not one of them. 

Given that context, it seems unfair to take social activism into consideration when awarding the title of GOAT. It was a different time, where sports stars were faced with a very different set of political circumstances. Perhaps Lebron’s work will lead to education on current social issues. His work off-court has blazed a trail that other sports stars can follow, but that doesn’t make his case for GOAT. Leave it to his work on the court to prove that.