OPINION: It’s Risky to Trust Athletes on their Politics

Soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimović, in an interview with Sweden’s Discovery+, spoke critically of LeBron James’ attempts to weave politics into his platform as a basketball player, saying that James should instead “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football.” James gracefully rebuked the thought during a post-game press conference on Feb. 26, saying that he comes from a marginalized community himself and that he has to be the voice for a group of over 300 kids he supports through his I Promise School. As well as for those kids, LeBron uses his platform to “shed light on everything that may be going on, not only in my community but around this country and around the world.”

The line of whether or not sports should be involved in political workings is an interesting one to walk, and I don’t think either side is in the wrong. Ibrahimović makes a very compelling point that athletes are renowned for their ability to play a sport, which isn’t even remotely related to politics. That’s not to say they aren’t educated, but it does mean their specialty is elsewhere. Meanwhile, LeBron is right to use his platform to do good in the world. Top athletes exist in this strange space different from most people, where fans by the thousands will literally idolize them for reasons that are ultimately trivial. With that kind of influence, isn’t it more ignorant to not try and make the world a better place?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. LeBron has paved a way for success in marginalized communities, particularly through his aforementioned school which is aimed at at-risk children who might otherwise fall through the cracks. I personally can really resonate with those goals. On the other hand, LeBron came under fire when he spoke out against Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweets, saying Morey should educate himself. These comments were essentially supportive of the Chinese government and has been viewed harshly as a way to not cut off his income from the Chinese market. LeBron also came out on March 7 to dodge a question about whether he’d get the COVID-19 vaccination. For a person as outspoken as him, it was an outright statement against getting the vaccine.

Other athletes have examples for either argument as well. In 2018, basketball star Kyrie Irving tried to open a conversation about whether or not the Earth is actually round. Dwight Howard, then of the Los Angeles Lakers, doubled down on his disbelief in vaccines in 2020, saying it’s “my personal opinion.” Also that summer, the NFL’s DeSean Jackson and former NBA player Stephen Jackson spearheaded an anti-Semitic campaign through quotes by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith and Kevin Durant all showed support for similar trains of thought.

On the other hand, Colin Kaepernick knelt for the anthem and was blackballed from the NFL, but without him the Black Lives Matter movement wouldn’t be nearly what it is today. Boxer Muhammad Ali was a civil rights activist, continuing on to become a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998 before being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most recognizable figures in American sports involved in the civil rights movement, and continues to live up to his legacy as an eloquent, educated individual even today, notably speaking out explicitly against the growing anti-Semitic notions from last summer.

It sounds like a cop-out, but with so many people on both sides of the coin, it feels like the only solution is to stop looking at athletes to provide answers to tough questions like these and instead focus on your own education. It never hurts to do your own research, but becoming reliant on a larger-than-life figure instead of finding your own answers always has the possibility of hurting you. If an athlete wants to influence positive change in their society, then there are ways they can do that without saying potentially harmful things. Irving donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who would have otherwise not been paid while they were sitting out of the league’s 2020 restart. He donated $323 thousand to Feeding America and pledged 250,000 meals to New York City families during the pandemic. The Dwight D. Howard Foundation has been giving out scholarships in Orlando, Fla. and Atlanta, Ga. since 2004. Stephen Jackson was notably supportive of BLM. Charles Barkley was a notable basketball superstar in the 90s who had the then-common public persona of someone you wouldn’t want as a role model, and he was quoted saying “Just because I can dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” He had a point, and it simply isn’t worth it to take the political opinions of these athletes seriously.