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What we can learn from LeBron James, school superintendent and the greatest of all time

We count rings and should count schools too

How do we create more LeBron Jameses? Not LeBron the dominant basketball player. But the LeBron who helped open a public school, The I Promise School, geared toward at-risk students in their hometowns. The LeBron whose foundations donated $41 million to allow 1,100 kids to go to college. The LeBron unafraid to voice his opinion when he believes a president is wielding sports like a cleaver to divide the country along racial lines.

How do we make more of those?

To accomplish that, we must entertain the idea that off-the-field accomplishments factor into how great an athlete is. To be one of the greatest of all time on the court, maybe a player has to be one of the GOATs off the court too.

One thing black folk know all too well is that the government tends to ignore our grievances. The government has little issue with locking us up. Little issue with depriving us of our vote. Little issue with spending money to inundate our neighborhoods with uniformed officers who see our black skin as threatening.

But using the public coffers to improve our life outcomes? The government is loath to do that. America remains far more willing to spend a dollar to incarcerate us than educate us. Black folk are seen as undeserving — we are at fault for the social ills that plague our population — and thus America is disinclined to use government’s vast resources to mend our wounds. This lack of government intervention creates an underserved population.

LeBron left a blueprint for other currently playing athletes to follow. Between the NFL and the NBA, we should see the potential for at least 100 more such schools across the country.

Athletes on their own can’t fill that vacuum. But athletes can leverage their influence in ways that make meaningful differences in people’s lives, as has Jalen Rose with his Jalen Rose Leadership Academy school and Derrick Rose with his recently launched scholarship program. James’ school in Akron, Ohio, is far too small to narrow the national achievement gap. But those 240 initial students who will attend the I Promise School, mainly kids of color who are at risk of being unsuccessful students, they will have the trajectory of their lives changed forever. In attending that school, students headed toward lacking the skills to contribute in a capitalist economy may go on to be leaders who pay their blessing forward to the next generation.

And here’s the key: LeBron left a blueprint for other currently playing athletes to follow. Between the NFL and the NBA, we should see the potential for at least 100 more such schools across the country. How do we get athletes to create those schools?

I don’t believe in pushing athletes to use their platforms simply because they have them. Encouraging a person to talk because people will listen strikes me as decidedly unsmart. No, we should instead push athletes to realize the good they can do if they become well-versed on both the needs of their communities and the depths of their power to bend, however slightly, their country more to their liking. We need to consider how we can encourage that. A partial answer is to credit athletes who choose to take seriously this righteous work.

We know enough about human behavior to know that people tend to do what they are encouraged to do. Show me the incentive structure and I can predict what most people, though not everyone, will do inside that structure.

We know athletes, like everybody else, want to be recognized for their greatness. Rookies, upon entering their respective leagues, say they have their eyes set on being the best. If would-be stars thought that to be the best, they also had to do work off the court like LeBron, then we should expect to see more athletes cognizant of the requirements for greatness and act accordingly. Besides shooting thousands of 3s a day to become deadly marksmen, they would be more likely to huddle with planners to build schools of their own.

In a country where our needs often go unmet, athletes have the potential to address that, even if in a relatively minor way. We should be investigating ways to push them toward that.

We count rings. We should count schools too.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.