James, Athletes Have Right to Discuss Political Issues

Imagine being one of the most awe-inspiring and charitable basketball players to ever hit the hardwood, winning three NBA championships, earning 14 straight All-Star nods, and donating over $40 million to send more than 1,100 students to college tuition-free — just to be told to stick to sports because you expressed your political views.

Fox News Host Laura Ingraham disparaged LeBron James last Thursday after taking offense to an UNINTERRUPTED video featuring James, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant, and SportsCenter anchor Cari Champion. In it, James commented, “The number-one job in America, the appointed person, is someone who don’t understand the people. And really don’t give a f**k about the people.” He added that while President Donald Trump’s words and actions are out of his control, his platform gives him the unique opportunity to encourage fans to rise above Trump’s antics.

James was born 33 years ago in Akron, Ohio. His mother, Gloria James, was only 16 years old when she became pregnant, and his biological father, ex-convict Anthony McClelland, fled shortly afterward. James never had a stable home growing up. He and Gloria moved every couple months, often crashing on the couch in a one-bedroom apartment that belonged to a friend of hers. The two often relied on welfare to get by. If anybody has the right to give voice to people from underrepresented communities, it’s James. Before the fame and millions of dollars, he experienced disenfranchisement and the challenges of poverty. It was more than God-given talent that helped James become the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA draft as a senior in high school; he overcame his circumstances with superhuman work ethic, grit, and street smarts.

Ingraham’s comments are disgraceful. To question the intelligence of a man who made it out of a place where nothing is given and everything is earned and all the way to the top is appalling.

“This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA,” Ingraham responded to LeBron’s criticisms of Trump. “And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid a hundred million dollars a year to bounce a ball. … Keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”

Ingraham’s remarks prove that racism still exists in this country — and sports are not an exception. It doesn’t matter how many championships Black athletes win or how much of their hard-earned money they donate to charities. Some Americans will still racially discriminate against them.

In October, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich called Trump “a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others.” Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr has spoken out on social issues multiple times since Trump was elected. “We have a president who has no regard for compassion or empathy, in the most important leadership position in the world,” he told the Bay Area News Group. Why wasn’t either coach mentioned in Ingraham’s verbal attacks? It’s because they’re white.

The same athletes that we cheer for when they make a mesmerizing play and show off otherworldly athleticism are criticized when they speak or act off the court. But basketball was never just a sport, and James was never just an athlete. The sport was invented in 1891 as a way to foster values like cooperation and selflessness in a country that was experiencing rapid urban growth. Likewise, James does more than just inspire young hoopers sporting jerseys with number 23 on the back.

Cleveland.com reported in 2015 that James’ return to the Cavaliers in 2014 resulted in a nine-figure economic boost for downtown Cleveland. When he helped bring the city its first major championship in 52 years, an estimated one million people lined the streets surrounding Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field for the parade. In many ways, James represents Clevelanders. But he does more than that — he represents anyone who has a dream and is willing to work for it. To reduce him to his abilities on the court is preposterous.

During a time when our children have no real role models in the White House, athletes and celebrities have filled the void by stepping up and speaking out. We need individuals like James, who rise to the top in their field and pave the way for others to follow suit. If James’ biggest fault is that he is outspoken when it comes to issues that he cares deeply about, then we have ourselves quite an icon.

Athletes aren’t animals thrown onto a stage for our entertainment. They’re spokespeople. They’re artists. They’re bestselling authors. They’re activists. They’re mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and — most importantly — United States citizens with the right to free speech and an obligation to be role models for our youth. Let’s quit reducing professional athletes to mere performers. Instead, let’s reduce Laura Ingraham and those like her to what they are: racists.