LeBron James matters in a way that few athletes have ever mattered in the history of sports. This is because he manages to combine the rarest of elements: He is arguably the best to ever play his sport, he gives a damn about social issues, and his media reach is unlike any athlete before him.
That last point is perhaps the most decisive in understanding the power of LeBron and why he has become a target of the white nationalist right wing. It’s not only that LeBron started a public school—not a charter school, as Jared Kushner lied on CNN—for underprivileged kids in Akron, Ohio. It’s not only that he has been consistently outspoken for a decade on questions of racist vigilantism and police violence. It’s not only that he is part of a program right now called More Than A Vote that is attempting to register voters and “combat systemic, racist voter suppression,” something that has earned him the ire of the scummiest dregs of the right-wing sports media. It’s his reach when striving to perform these tasks.
Because of social media, LeBron has a measure of power that previous athlete-activists could not touch. Muhammad Ali always had to go through the filter of the sports media, and at times the right-wing Beltway media, in order to be heard. Michael Jordan was only heard through the prism of corporate salesmanship. We could hear what Michael was saying, but it usually involved Nike or Hanes underwear. LeBron James has 47.4 million Twitter followers. On Instagram, he has 72.3 million. Those totals exceed the combined “following” of Donald Trump, and he doesn’t resort to appealing to people’s basest instincts in order to get there.
Trump has mocked LeBron’s intelligence, but no one, not even Trump’s powerful lizard brain, uses their messaging more effectively. Trump insults legions of people to the point where it’s all become “white noise.” When LeBron called Trump “u bum” after the president disinvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House, it was a news event unto itself.
With this voice that is capable of reaching more than 100 million people, LeBron has shown a remarkable discipline in trying to uplift his community and openly criticize a US police force that is off the rails. The latest slander he has had to endure from the white nationalist right, which seethes over the fact that he has such a platform, is that his activism has encouraged violence against police officers. The LA Sheriffs’ Department, the same LASD that’s being sued by Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, for taking pictures of Kobe and their daughter Gianna at the site of their helicopter crash for personal use, challenged LeBron to put up a reward to capture the shooter of two police officers.
It was a cheap stunt, and the right treated it as a gotcha moment. But LeBron did not bite, saying, “I have zero response on the Sheriff.” Instead, speaking to reporters this week, he spoke about the outlandish allegation that daring to raise your voice against police violence is somehow an encouragement of assaults aimed at police. “Not one time have I ever said let’s act violent toward cops,” he said. “I just said what’s going on in our community is not okay. And we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go through every single day as a Black man, a Black woman and a Black kid and a Black girl, we fear that moment where we’re pulled over.”
He also said:
“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. I never have. But I also know what right is right and what wrong is wrong. I grew up in the inner city and the Black community in what we call ‘the hood’ or ‘the ghetto,’ however you want to picture it. I’ve seen a lot of accounts first-hand of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. I’ve seen it throughout my whole life. I’m not saying that all cops are bad.
“Throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos of that’s going on, and you see them not only in my hometown, but all over America, you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but speak about it and see the common denominator.”
LeBron then spoke about a recent event in Monona, Wis., where a Black man, Keonte Furdge, was handcuffed in his own home by police at gunpoint for the crime of sitting on his porch, to the alarm of his neighbors:
“Police came in the house without a warrant, without anything and arrested the guy, a Black man, because he was sitting out on the porch. If you can’t tell me that’s not racial profiling, then what the hell are we looking at? But I don’t condone violence toward anyone, police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color. Because that’s not ever going to make this world or America what we want it to be.”
LeBron will always have his detractors: people on the right who want to silence him and then those on the left who wish he would use his immense cultural capital to push even harder for systemic charge. But that misses the broader point: LeBron is not going to change the world for us. That’s our job. But he has been—and can be—one of the great amplifiers in history for what the movement is saying.
The streets want police accountability, as witnessed by the largest protests this summer in the history of the United States. LeBron can get that message in front of the eyes of white fans and puncture the privilege that protects the majority of this country from having to reckon with racist police abuse. That makes him powerful. That also makes him dangerous to those with a vested interest in systemic oppression—people like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is pushing a bill that would criminalize protest to a degree that would lock up anyone participating, organizing, or believed to be supporting acts of protest deemed to be civil disobedience. LeBron needs to be supported in the face of these attacks and, when necessary, defended. That’s the reality of the United States: Opposing the bigotry coming from the highest levels of government is a responsibility. It is also done at his—and our—own risk and even peril.