This month, amid the excitement surrounding the release of the Afrocentric superhero film Black Panther, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant granted a seemingly innocuous interview to the “Uninterrupted” podcast produced by the sports network ESPN.
In that interview with reporter Cari Champion, James spoke bluntly of his distaste for President Trump. “The No. 1 job in America … is someone who doesn’t understand the people, and really don’t give a f— about the people. … It’s like, laughable. It’s laughable and it’s scary.”
Scarier perhaps, was the reaction to James and Durant. It was a reaction that embodied the same kind of racist backlash so often engendered by black success.
“Shut up and dribble.”
That’s what Fox News host Laura Ingraham said of James and Durant, two men who’ve reached the pinnacle of their craft by developing their talent, outworking their competition, and pushing toward their dreams. With multiple NBA championships between them, they’ve earned hundreds of millions of dollars in an industry that produces billions in revenue from Americans of all stripes.
But to Ingraham, and to other conservatives, James and Durrant are unworthy of speaking on political issues. And while Ingraham denies it, citing her past criticism of white entertainers who’ve criticized Trump and other Republican conservatives, I believe race is at the center of her decision to attack James and Durant.
“Must they run their mouths like that?” Ingraham said on her show. “Unfortunately, a lot of kids — and some adults — take these ignorant comments seriously. And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid a hundred million dollars a year to bounce a ball.
“Oh, and LeBron and Kevin: You’re great players, but no one voted for you. … So keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”
I find it ironic, but not surprising, that Ingraham never cautioned New England Patriots quarterback and Trump supporter Tom Brady to shut up and throw. She never told Trump-supporting golfer John Daly to shut up and putt, and never advised Trump backer and NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip to shut up and drive.
That is as much a reflection of those athletes’ white skin color as it is a function of their shared political leanings.
However, black athletes, while being discouraged from engaging in political commentary, have always been political targets.
Trump himself attacked black NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. While calling for any protesting player to be fired, Trump called on NFL owners to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” In doing this, he ignored the fact that protesting players have a First Amendment right to free speech. He also delivered a dog-whistle message to his white, working-class base — that black athletes, no matter how rich, are expected to display undying gratitude to America. If they are paid to be the driving force behind America’s multibillion-dollar sports industries, they must also remain silent in the face of ongoing racism.
Temple professor, lawyer, and radio host Michael Coard says that pattern has repeated throughout American history.
“From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali to Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to NBA superstar Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, white folks have consistently told black athletes to entertain not educate, despite the racist discrimination that smothers them and their community,” Coard told me. “And in the process, those white folks were yelling or whispering or thinking, ‘Shut your n—– mouth, you rich slave, while you make massa happy.’
“But LeBron wasn’t having it,” Coard continued. “Unlike Charles Barkley in the ’90s, LeBron says he is a role model to ‘kids that feel they have no way out.’ That means black kids. That means he must speak up.”
And LeBron, who famously donned an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt after Eric Garner was choked to death by a Long Island police officer, has spoken in ways that go well beyond rhetoric. In fact, his ongoing activism has been so effective that it’s been documented by academics in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.
LeBron James joins Kyrie Irving in wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt before game in Brooklyn. pic.twitter.com/lLU6TRvSLB
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 9, 2014
Beyond that, James, who responded to Ingraham’s comments by saying he would not shut up and dribble, has allowed his actions to speak louder than his words.
The LeBron James Family Foundation earmarked $41 million for full-ride scholarships at the University of Akron for Akron public school students who go through the foundation’s I Promise program. The foundation has also helped parents of those students to earn GEDs.
And because LeBron, with his boldness and blackness, with his platform and resources, has decided to speak out in that way, he has become a real-life example of one of the most prophetic lines from the record-breaking film Black Panther. In times of trouble, “the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”
If Laura Ingraham would do half as much, maybe all of us could finally move forward together.