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LeBron’s rebuttal to Trump is next-level athlete activism against racism

Defiance in any form is the acceptable form of protest in the world of social media

Those of us in the so-called mainstream media work in a tricky environment, one in which superficiality has gained an importance approaching that of substance.

We must be conscious of and engaged in, but not driven by, clicks; consumed by, but not obsessed with, metrics; and, at the same time, try to fit in journalism on substantive issues.

The ongoing scuffle between President Donald Trump and LeBron James is a prime example of how we balance the interest generated by the superficial AND deal with the critically important substance of the issues.

In their war of words, the superficiality is a public exchange on social media. The substance is the audacity of a black athlete to challenge a president he believes traffics in the politics of hate.

Last year, James reacted to the White House’s withdrawal of an invitation to the Golden State Warriors by calling the president a bum. Last week during an interview with popular CNN anchor Don Lemon, James spoke proudly of a school for at-risk children that he opened in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

In their war of words, the superficiality is the public exchange on social media. The substance is the audacity of a black athlete to challenge a president he believes traffics in the politics of hate.

During the course of the conversation, James lamented that the president of the United States seemed to be using sports as a wedge to drive people apart. James said, “What I’ve noticed over the last few months is that he’s kind of used sports to kind of divide us.”

Shortly after the interview, the president tweeted: “LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon.” He added a backhanded compliment: “He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

Classic. Not only did POTUS 45 insult a prominent African-American newscaster and the NBA’s most popular player, he dragged the famously neutral Michael Jordan into the fight. One of the worst things for any African-American is to be used publicly to denigrate another African-American by a white person perceived to be anti-black.

The president forced Jordan to respond, which Jordan did through a representative who said: “I support L.J. He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”

In February, one of the president’s surrogates, talk show host Laura Ingraham, criticized James for discussing politics and said that James should “shut up and dribble.”

James responded that he didn’t know who Ingraham was and went on to discuss his thoughts on activism. Ingraham’s condescension revealed a deeply held belief by many about athletes in general, black athletes in particular: You’re OK as long as you remain faceless, thoughtless entertainers. James’ response was evidence that more African-American athletes are feeling empowered to speak up.

The exchange ignited a week of ratings-boosting content for Ingraham. In a universe where clicks and eyeballs are king, that was a win.

James is the latest in a line of black athletes who have used their visibility to fight racism.

  • 1960: After starring for the United States at the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, winner of three gold medals, refused to participate in a parade in her honor in Clarksville, Tennessee, unless the parade and the banquet were integrated. The city relented.
  • 1963: Bill Russell, weeks after leading the Boston Celtics to a fifth consecutive NBA championship, ignored death threats and traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to hold the first integrated basketball camp in that city. Russell was moved to act by the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
  • 1967: Muhammad Ali famously refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army on religious grounds that he was a conscientious objector. The same year, Jim Brown summoned well-known black athletes to Cleveland to support Ali.
  • 1968: Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos used their Olympic victory to stand at the Mexico City Games to protest injustice in the United States.
  • 1969: Curt Flood pushed for a different type of freedom when he filed a lawsuit to force Major League Baseball to remove the reserve clause that bound players to their respective teams for life.
  • 1996: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the NBA for refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem. He called the U.S. flag a symbol of oppression.
  • 2016: Colin Kaepernick, explaining that he could no longer stand and put his hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem, chose instead to kneel. His protest and subsequent blackballing by the NFL set off a wave of discontent that likely will continue into the upcoming season — a season of discontent.

Is James’ dust-up with the president activism, social activism or simply social media activism? This isn’t exactly Rudolph, Ali, Smith and Carlos, Flood, Abdul-Rauf or Kaepernick.

James is not kneeling, not raising his fist, not exhorting fellow NBA players to ignore the collective bargaining agreement that compels them to stand for the anthem. He is fighting a war of words through social media with the president of the United States.

The public brawl has increased James’ following and standing in the black community while solidifying the president’s base by showing that he’ll stand his ground against an “uppity” high-profile African-American.

How will James respond to the president’s “dumb” tweet? Will he let it go?

James is not kneeling, not raising his fist, not exhorting fellow NBA players to ignore the collective bargaining agreement that compels them to stand for the anthem. He is fighting a war of words through social media with the president of the United States.

Back in the day, our people used to say: Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.

That may have been true before the explosion of social media, but it’s not true now. Words can hurt. In an environment in which the accusation becomes truth before discussion and confirmation, words matter.

The best way to defuse arguments is to simply not throw logs on the fire. The worst thing that can happen to anyone who uses social media is to have no one respond, with no likes, no retweets, no clicks.

James might choose to concentrate on the school he just built or on his business ventures, his family’s full-time transition to Los Angeles and the upcoming NBA season.

On second thought, James should fire back.

Challenging those in power is more important than ever.

Defiance in any form is an acceptable form of protest.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.