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Why Does Anyone Care What Athletes Have To Say About Politics?

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So LeBron James has offered his “endorsement”—since the traditional newspaper endorsement has lost whatever influence it ever had, it doesn’t seem too ridiculous to use the word to describe political support given by a guy who throws leather balls against the ground for a living—of Hillary Clinton for president. Or, more accurately, LeBron James™ would like you, his current and prospective consumers, to know that he is endorsing Hillary Clinton. Depending on your parameters for acceptable political discourse, this is may read as a good or a bad thing to you, with the lines most likely drawn by how closely his sentiments track your own. I, on the other hand, can’t help but think back to that old Dave Chappelle joke and wonder, “Where is Ja?”


It’s worthwhile to think back to how we got here, here being—granted that political activism by athletes is nothing new—a landscape where extremely physically fit young people feel compelled to express their political opinions, and where those opinions ramify out into the broader world, and even matter. Considerations about how Republicans, too, buy shoes matter less than they might once have to athletes ranging from Megan Rapinoe to David Ortiz. Meanwhile, the press and the public seem disinclined to dismiss what these athletes have to say as the takes of cosseted and ill-informed rich young people, and eager to read all sorts of meaning into them.

The main question here is a simple one: Why?

You could argue that it was LeBron James himself, with help from his then-Miami Heat teammates, who kickstarted the new wave of athletes expressing themselves politically when he posted a photo on Twitter of him and his teammates standing in hooded sweatshirts with the hoods pulled over their heads. This was a reference to the stated suspicions of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, which were piqued by little more than the color of the teenager’s skin and his choice of attire.

Image via Twitter

This kind of activism continued a couple years later, when James and some fellow players followed Derrick Rose’s lead in wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts—an allusion to the killing of Eric Garner—during pregame warmups.


What James started, though, has unquestionably found its fullest expression in Colin Kaepernick’s wildly successful attempts to start a dialogue about police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. It may be a matter of timing, or of the specific nature of Kaepernick’s protest, or of the enormous and singular gravitational effect the NFL has on this country’s consciousness, but whatever the cause, Kaepernick’s protest has inspired athlete activism on a scale unseen among pro athletes in generations.

Kaepernick’s unique place in the game and the larger culture made him practically the ideal subject on which for all this to center. At the time he began his protests, he was at once a known figure—recently among the most promising young players at American sports’ most important and high-profile position—yet also perilously close to the cliff of irrelevance after having lost his starting job and standing on the verge of being cut. This made him a person whom the average sports fan would recognize and pay attention to, while also shielding him from accusations that this was a calculated branding ploy intended to make him a more marketable star. As it seemed in the moment—and as was borne out by reporting on the irate reactions of NFL team executives—there was real risk in doing what he did. It was an act of conscience.


Kaepernick also had an easily identifiable and replicable protest technique and a cogent if simple rationale behind it; further, he was and is fluent enough in the language of his stance to articulate it extemporaneously in response to questioning. This is a guy most everyone knows, standing for a contentious topic (even if it makes my brain sore imagining the mental gymnastics one must endure in order to contort oneself into justifying being offended by someone saying they would like for police not to shoot people so often) that he truly believes in, equipped to expound upon why he feels the way he does, and carrying a message that can and has inspired many of his colleagues to do the same. Match, gas, wood, fire.

That any given American citizen would have thoughts on a subject like police brutality is completely unsurprising and obviously unobjectionable. However, behind both the outrage over Kaepernick’s bent knee and much of the support for his message is the unstated premise that caused this to become A Thing in the first place: namely, that people should care what professional athletes have to say.


To people angry with Kaepernick, his national anthem protest was a direct affront to America’s core ideals, the military that protects those ideals in wartime, and the men and women comprising the various police forces which at least ostensibly defend every individual’s rights and liberties from would-be domestic assailants. Meanwhile, many of those who agreed with Kaepernick’s underlying points made the case that, actually, Kaepernick’s peaceful, symbolic protest is far more patriotic and reverent of our national ideals than silence. For these people—a group including much of the media, and most of us here at Deadspin—Kaepernick wasn’t only not wrong or un-American, he was actively right and something of a hero for telling it like it is.

Whatever effects Kaepernick’s stance has had, though, and whatever you make of of them, the thing in itself doesn’t seem like much. (In fact, Kaepernick was protesting for weeks before even minutiae-obsessed NFL reporters noticed.) It’s self-evident that even if it offends you, his unwillingness to stand for the anthem like a typical NFL player does no harm. Perhaps more importantly, his comments on state violence amount essentially to rote talking points rearranged into new-sounding sentences at impressive speed. Kaepernick sounds less like an original thinker with a comprehensive understanding of structural racism and more like a guy with high-end media training who’s read the structural racism pamphlet so many times over that he can now regurgitate its core ideas in infinite, different-ish iterations.


If you live in a big city, you can find guys at a nearby park saying much the same thing; what’s noteworthy isn’t what he’s saying, but that he’s saying it. Another way to put this would be that an unexceptional NFL player has done more to put ideas that tens of millions of people hold into the mainstream than has the fact that tens of millions of people hold them.

If you want a clue to the mystery here, consider that LeBron James—as outspoken as an athlete of his stature can be—has proven to be, on balance, a fairly staid social activist, offering almost unobjectionable opinions. He published the hoodie photo and wore the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt; he has spoken about police shootings through the eyes of a father of young black boys (albeit with some questionable All Lives Matter-type pandering rhetoric); he has proclaimed that he believes Hillary Clinton would be a better president than Donald Trump. All of this seems both worthy enough and reflective of only a surface-level engagement with the problems the country faces, which will not be solved even by general agreement that the police should not shoot unarmed black children, or that Donald Trump is bad.


It also seems reflective of where James’s peers are. For all the talk about a new generation of activist athletes, and all the real impact that athletes have unquestionably had, the most powerful athlete in America publicly supporting a candidate who will almost certainly be the next president represents something like an outer bound on the acceptable. Whatever else LeBron’s endorsement is, it’s at least something people can disagree with; more typical are statements like those made by Cam Newton or the Seattle Seahawks or Drew Brees.

Like James’s activism, their statements seem of a piece with carefully curated, corporate-friendly brand identity. (It’s telling that the topic that gets both James and Michael Jordan out from behind their veil of political abstinence is the not-exactly-politically fraught position that police shooting unarmed black men is a bad thing.) Along the same lines, the near omnipresence of All Lives Matter-like language in athletes’ comments about police brutality seems reflective not just of a lack of understanding that in the real world the phrase has connotations very different from its literal meaning, but of an impulse to not upset anyone—an impulse inimical to real political conversation.


In this light, it makes sense both that athletes would speak out and that the press and the public would listen; all parties involved have a lot of experience with athletes saying things that get a lot of attention but don’t in the end say much about anything past their brand positioning, and are subsequently analyzed in marketing terms or as a matter of locker room dynamics.

One could take all of this as a reason to criticize know-nothing athletes, or to consider a more general principle here—that most athletes, like most everyone, have nothing to say about the world at large that goes past the limits of their own experience, and that because of this, no one should concern themselves much with the things they say.


If Colin Kaepernick can’t get down into the nitty-gritty of police militarization, where he might find a thought too complex to be expressed in a soundbite, that may be because he’s been kind of busy learning how to better call a play and read a defense and step into a 30-yard pass with the correct footwork before a 300-pound defensive tackle can pick him up and slam his head into the ground. If LeBron James didn’t read the blog post that would’ve told him that All Lives Matter doesn’t mean “all lives matter,” that may be because he’s preoccupied with getting his body back in shape and ready for another gauntlet of a season coming off his sixth consecutive NBA Finals run. To say that most pro athletes haven’t amassed a deep base of knowledge in things like politics and social justice isn’t to slight them at all; it’s to acknowledge the reality of the lifelong demands of their outrageously successful careers.


The problem here isn’t that athletes have opinions on things, or that they want to express them through any of the many channels available to them. The problem—the same one that comes up when seemingly reasonable people come to the conclusion that having succeeded in Silicon Valley qualifies someone to offer takes on politics and life—is with anyone who values the opinions of strong and fast people everyone knows have no special insight into why the world is the way it is; with anyone who pretends to; and with those who use the times when athletes do have something they want to say as an opportunity to celebrate the victory of their own priors. (If you need evidence that it’s usually the specific content of these athletes’ messages that is being valorized, and not the act of political expression itself, consider how much more seriously Kaepernick’s backers in the media treat his police-brutality comments than his attacks on Hillary Clinton. Let Kevin Love come out with an endorsement of Donald Trump in a letter as unremarkable and innocuous as James’s, and we’ll see how many people are praising him for speaking his mind.)

Whether you like or dislike what Kaepernick or James have to say about policing in America or who should be the next president, their takes aren’t any more meaningful (even if they aren’t less so) than anyone else’s; they matter simply because they’re perceived to be more influential. The situation exists entirely as a matter of celebrity culture, a remnant halo effect that links entirely unrelated phenomena—an athlete’s level of fame and sporting prowess with their assumed political weightiness, say—and makes you grant them power in the political sphere that far outstrips their knowledge and engagement. It’s the same mental conflation that brands use to claim ownership of the abstract concepts like love and self-esteem which they use to sell you things. Celebrate or denounce Coke’s “America The Beautiful” commercial as you like; either way, you’ve given a carbonated drink company the power to define America.


The shame of this, though, isn’t that athletes are, for complex reasons having to do with the power of various marketing complexes, being listened to on topics outside the scope of their own experiences; it’s that because they are, they feel compelled to address them (sometimes even largely incoherently), rather than less obviously weighty ones into which they can offer direct insight, and which affect everyone’s lives.

Take Richard Sherman on player safety, or Cardale Jones on the NCAA’s exploitation of college athletes, or Richie Incognito (of all people) on the NFL’s rigged private judiciary system. These kinds of takes reveal serious thought about issues directly facing athletes, and can be generalized up as instantiations of principles at play in the lives of everyone, like how the company you work for is a self-interested entity that you should not consider your friend, or how those in power will tend to take advantage of those beneath them by pretending there are higher moral standards that justify their exploitation, or how a system for apportioning justice that is accountable only to itself is no system of justice at all.


Along these lines, I’d be legitimately fascinated to hear LeBron’s unvarnished thoughts on player vs. owner power in the NBA, after dealing with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert after that plantation-owner-pissed-at-the-slave-who-ran-away-sounding open letter he wrote after The Decision. That is a topic he—and arguably he alone—could hold forth on with a expertise a minute few could replicate. Hearing him do so would certainly be much more interesting than him announcing his support for Clinton for president in a glorified press release that spends most of its time extolling his personal charitable efforts.

Instead, LeBron has staked out a safe position as a Clinton supporter, as a champion of education and opportunity for children and a solemn though soft-spoken enemy to unjust killings. With each new venture into the political arena, he adds just a bit more to his credibility and reach to his burgeoning image as a political advocate without any risk or revelation.


“I support Hillary because she will build on the legacy of my good friend, President Barack Obama,” LeBron wrote, and with presumably unsolicited support like this endorsement, there’s every reason to believe he’s making a new good friend in soon-to-be President Clinton. LeBron sees that this is a game of power accumulation that society seem strangely willing to just hand over to him without him doing much of anything to show he deserves it. Do you?

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