LeBron James And The Return Of The Superstar Athlete With A Conscience

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

LeBron James joined the list of professional athletes to don an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt in pre-game warm-ups before Monday’s meeting with the Brooklyn Nets, joining other Nets players and his Cavaliers teammates in brandishing the last words of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man killed by a New York police officer in July.

James was not the first player to wear the shirt. Chicago’s Derrick Rose wore an “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up before the Bulls played Golden State on Saturday, just three days after a grand jury decided not to bring charges against the officer who killed Garner, and several other Brooklyn and Cleveland players wore them Monday.

But LeBron is LeBron, and so coming from him the gesture carries even more weight, especially taking place as it did in New York, the city where Garner was slain. That British royalty were in attendance and a massive protest was taking place outside the Barclay’s Center only added to it all.

Beyond the immediate impact, Monday’s gesture was another indication that the biggest superstar in sports has surprisingly but not-so-quietly become one of that world’s most socially conscious — and outspoken — voices. Even more than that, James has perhaps emerged as the symbol of the return of a superstar athlete who is both politically conscious and willing to speak out on controversial issues that matter to them.

James emerged onto that scene in 2012, when he and Dwyane Wade led their Miami Heat teammates to don black hoodies, with heads down and hoods up, for a team picture that protested the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin:

Heat Neighborhood Watch Basketball

CREDIT: (AP Photo/LeBron James via Twitter)

James recalled that image when he first “spoke” out on the shooting death of Michael Brown, the St. Louis teen who was shot by a white police officer. When a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, James shared this picture on Instagram:

A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

While his statements in these three cases have trended toward less-than-subtle symbolism rather than outspoken screeds and explicit arguments, James has at other times used his voice — and his power — to take a stand.

His strongest moment, perhaps, came after former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments about fans and NBA players. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that explicit outrage from James — who said pointedly that “there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league” and, with his Heat teammates, held his own silent protest during the playoffs — and other players led to commissioner Adam Silver’s harsh punishment of Sterling. And though reports that James was prepared to lead a boycott of the 2014-2015 season if Sterling didn’t sell the team were premature, James still made it clear that he and the players were watching the proceedings closely. “We’ll see what happens,” he said then.

(As an aside, James’ voice has been loud on NBA-specific economic issues too: after the Sacramento Kings sold for more than $500 million last year, he used Twitter to take issue with how much money was transferred to owners during the 2011 lockout. He later signaled that he was considering a run for president of the NBA Players Association, though he ultimately decided against it.)

The killings of Martin, Brown, and Garner have become a common thread, but James picks his spots on when to speak out, he explained Monday.

“If it feels important to me, then I respond. If it doesn’t, I don’t. There’s a lot of issues I haven’t talked about. For me it’s about knowledge, it’s about the gut feeling,” James told reporters after the game in Brooklyn.

As a result, he has emerged as one of the more constant voices when these issues arise. That ascension is powerful given the stature LeBron holds both in sports and in American culture writ large, but it is also so because James is a somewhat surprising source. It might have been easy to expect a man who was anointed King as a teen, felt meticulously brand-managed through The Decision in 2010, and now exists as the sport’s most iconic superstar to follow in the footsteps of certain megastars who preceded him.

And yet, there is no Michael Jordan here, no cool dismissal of sharing an opinion with a line like, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Whether Jordan ever actually said that is disputed, but the contrast is clear: with James, there is little reluctance to endorse black political candidates at the height of his career (he openly supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012) and little hesitance to take stances on controversial political and social issues (aside from the Martin, Brown, and Garner cases, James was also among the athletes who helped promote Affordable Care Act enrollment). James has used his platform to highlight issues both inside and outside basketball in ways Jordan never did.

James isn’t the only athlete speaking out on these issues or others. But LeBron isn’t just an athlete. He’s a superstar, the type of transcendent athletic icon that hasn’t been this outspoken and involved in a long time. And that’s why James, with his place atop the sports world and his willingness to use it, makes it easy to harken back to days when powerful black athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown spoke out as a matter of routine.

James doesn’t exactly fit that mold: he’s neither as brash nor as outspoken as Ali and Brown often were, and the media and world around him mean he doesn’t have to be. Beyond that, LeBron will never face the consequences that greeted the athletes of yesteryear when they took a stand.

But even if he’s not exactly Ali, James’ particular brand of activism is powerful both because it comes from him and because of how he delivers it. It feels at once both deliberate and spontaneous, informed and earnest but with little need for explanation to those he wants to reach and little concern for any controversy he may stir. It is natural and even a little raw, and it is coming from the biggest superstar in sports, a man who has grown comfortable in the fact that he has power beyond basketball, who is learning too that when he speaks, the world is bound to listen.