By Guest Contributor David J. Leonard
As individuals from throughout the United States and in other parts of the world voiced their anger and outrage at the murder of Trayvon Martin, there was an initial frustration from many in the social media world about the reticence and silence from today’s (black) athletes. The wish that athletes, and really black athletes–since it is rare to hear about the failure of white athletes–would uses their platform to shape change has become commonplace. So when the Miami Heat and several other players joined the calls for justice, there was certainly a level of joy and satisfaction.
Whereas individual athletes have a long tradition of protest and using the platform of athletes to express political sentiments, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Toni Smith, few teams have collectively taken a stand. Donning hoodies, the Heat stood in solidarity with Trayvon, shining a spotlight on the deferred justice in his case and the real-life dangers of racial profiling. As a team, they stood together as one, although it is clear that both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were the ringleaders beyond this effort. The picture and the tweet, under the hashtag of #wewantjustice, were in fact the impetus of James himself.
Many have expressed surprise at the involvement of James and even Wade, given their emergence as America’s team to hate, as emblematic of the me-first baller generation. This is particularly the case for James, who has been subjected to endless criticism since high school. While much of the condemnation often focuses on his unwillingness to take the “big shot” in important games or his attitude, some progressives have lamented the lack of political engagement from James. While not unique in their eyes, his power and status elevates him in this regard. Writing about James’ refusal to sign a letter from teammate Ira Newble concerning China’s role in the Darfur genocide, Dave Zirin took James to task for his refusal to join the fight:
At the tender age of 22, you have the galactic talent to make us wonder if a mad scientist had Magic and MJ genetically spliced. But talent ain’t wisdom. In a recent interview, you said that your goal in sports was to become “the richest man on earth.” You also told ESPN, “I’m trying to be a global icon … on the level of Muhammad Ali.”
These dreams are compatible only if you choose to emulate Ali the icon and not Ali the man. Ali the icon is used to sell books, computers, snack foods, and anything not nailed down. Ali the man sacrificed his health, future, and untold millions by standing up to racism and war. No one is demanding you do the same. No one is insisting you get in front of a microphone and say, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Iraqis.”
But you should understand that the reason Ali remains a “global icon” is precisely because he didn’t define himself by his corporate sponsors. When his handlers told him to stop throttling the golden goose of fame he said, “Damn the money! Damn the white man’s money!”
Seemingly challenging James, Zirin highlights a clear choice for the NBA’s next great superstar.
“The choice you face is frankly quite stark: How free do you want to be?,” he asks. “Do you want to be ‘King James of Nike Manor’ or the King of the World? Only by refusing to be owned, only by displaying independence from the very corporate interests that enrich you, will you ever make the journey from brand to three dimensional man.” With his participation with the Million Hoodie March, and the efforts from other Heat players, it is clear that not only has James made clear how he “wants to be” but silenced his critics by highlighting his willingness to take the big shot, one far more significant than any last game heroics.
At one level, the response reflects the connection that James, Wade, and several other players felt with Trayvon. According to James, “I have two boys, D-Wade has two boys and a lot of our teammates have sons. This could be one of our sons someday. The thought of sending your son to the store and never having him return is an emotional one for any parent.” In reading their statements, it is clear that their statement didn’t merely reflect their being fathers but father of black boys.
“This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies,” explained Dwyane Wade. “So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I’m speaking up because I feel it’s necessary that we get past the stereotype of young black men and especially with our youth.” According to former baseball pro Gary Sheffield, “When you got sons and you hear about stuff like this, it frightens you. If my kids walk out of this house, they might not come back.”This isn’t simply a symbolic connection but the grasp of stereotype and racism regardless celebrity, class status or popularity.
From Robbie Tolan and Steve Foley, to any number of black athletes who have experience of driving/walking/standing while black, the idea exists that black athletes live apart from the boundaries of American racism. Notwithstanding the often-repeated media fantasy about racial transcendence, black athletes exists inside and are impacted by American racism. We have seen this on countless occasions with athletes subjected to racial profiling.
Having successfully branded themselves independent of a team, a particular city, or a shoe company, James has specifically created a space whereupon social activism is still possible. The constraints resulting from the power of the league, endorsement companies, and even fans have been mitigated by the efforts of black athletes to construct their own image, allowing for political participation and social justice engagement. Whereas Michael Jordan explained his decision not to weigh in on the 1990 North Carolina Senate race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt by noting Republicans buy shoes, the likes of LeBron James transcends these constraints. At a base level, James knows that he is bigger than the Swoosh and therefore he doesn’t need to uphold a certain image to remain marketable. LeBron James isn’t selling shoes, or even the grand of the NBA, but himself. This is evident in The Decision, in The LeBrons, and in his NIKE commercials that chronicle the various identities/experiences of LeBron James. As the leader of the Heat, the decision to don the hoodie highlights the ways that athletes are constrained in different ways in our contemporary media moment.
According to sports commentator and analyst Bomani Jones, during an appearance on Left of Black, “This generation is more aware of its personal brand power than any generation before. It is not just that people having been making money off of them forever, [but] they have seen their impact as basketball players and as commodities. They have been there to witness it. One guy in basketball makes such a difference.” The Heat hoodie picture or the efforts from other players, points to the social and political potential offered because NBA superstars exist as brands, commodities, and so integral to the success of the league.
The statement from the Heat, and specifically James, reveals the potential power of the 21st-century baller, who increasingly exists as apart of the structures of the 40-million-dollar slave. The space James, Wade, Nash, et. al., have created is independent of the usual NBA talking points, but to date that hasn’t resulted in a level activism or statements that transcend the accepted parameters established for today’s athletes. To challenge the status quo inside and outside the arena, to produce the kind of Ali-like speeches Zirin is calling for would not end with showing solidarity with Trayvon but speaking out more forcefully against the Sanford PD, the Stand Your Ground law, guns laws, or racial profiling. The potential is evident, albeit not fully realized to date.
None of this is to say the Heat’s hoodie picture or Carmelo Anthony’s, Steve Nash’s, or Amar’e Stoudemire’s individual visual statements are without risk. Clearly all athletes–and particularly black athletes–are also subject to the trope of “shut up and play.” Their brand as athletes as entertainers as running, dunking, and scoring cyborgs is disrupted through humanizing actions at weighing in on social/political issues. Yet, the efforts to partake in a larger social movement and discourse contribute to a level of self-branding as independently minded people who are talking about and engaged with the issues of the day. It challenges the idea that athletes are the 1% but instead points to the ways they are part of the 99%. To put this more succinctly: not many people care if a bench-warmer’s an idealist.
Here we can also see the role of social media in that athletes are able to not only shape/define their own message but bypass the filters of the traditional media. James and the Heat didn’t need to call a press conference or send out a press release with hopes that the media would properly frame the issue and their involvement but instead took to Twitter and, with a push of a button, the world new visually how they felt about the murder of Trayvon Martin. Not only does this point to the power of athletes–and particularly black athletes–to transcend a media that has a history of demonization, but the power of social media that allows today’s athletes to cultivate their own brand, one defined by independence and power unrestrained by the demands of fans, owners, and corporate power. While not yet fully realized, the reaction to Trayvon Martin highlights the power and potential here.