In a recent interview, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a star soccer player at AC Milan and one of the most recognizable figures in world football, offered a direct critique of NBA superstar LeBron James’ social and political activism.
“He is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I don’t do politics. If I would be a political politician, I would do politics.”
To which James quickly responded this way:
“I preach about my people and I preach about equality. Social injustice. Racism. Systematic voter suppression. Things that go on in our community. Because I was a part of my community at one point and saw the things that was going on and I know what’s going on still because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that are going through the same thing and they need a voice. And I’m their voice.”
James is right. And Ibra, as he is commonly known among soccer aficionados, is wrong. Or at least misguided in his analysis of our current cultural moment.
Ibra’s comments echo those made by conservative Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham when she told James to “shut up and dribble.” Or the view expressed by Michael Jordan when asked why he avoided taking a side in any political fights: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” (Jordan has insisted that comment was made in jest.)
That (long-dominant) idea was that everyone – athletes and entertainers, most especially – needed to stay in their respective lanes. Do the thing you are great at and had made you famous! Other than that, we don’t want to hear from you!
What that approach overlooked was two key things:
1) No one is one dimensional. Simply because you are a good basketball player doesn’t mean that you aren’t also a human being – in James’ case, an African American man – living in our culture, with thoughts on all sorts of things. (As Walt Whitman once famously said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”)
2) There are no more “lanes” in modern culture. There isn’t a sports lane or an acting lane or even a reporting lane. There’s just a single blob of culture – and everyone’s reacting to it based on their own experiences in the world. To the extent that those lanes ever existed – and I think, if they did, it was solely because someone somewhere convinced us that people didn’t want to know what, say, LeBron James thought about racial inequality in policing.
Let’s come back to Ibra’s comments then. He chooses not to comment about politics, which is absolutely his right! But, he has, in the past, commented about race and ethnicity and its impact on his own life.
Ibrahimovic, born to a Croatian mother and a Bosnian father who emigrated to Sweden, has spoken out about his own struggles in Sweden with a decidedly non-Swedish last name. Here’s Ibra from a 2018 interview:
“This is about racism. This is about racism. I don’t say there is racism, but I say there is undercover racism. This exists, I am 100 percent sure, because I am not Andersson or Svensson. If I would be that, trust me, they would defend me even if I would rob a bank. They would defend me, I tell you.”
Which, again is his right! And, based on his own personal experiences, serves as a powerful testimony regarding intolerance!
Which brings me to James who – in addition to being either the best or second best NBA player ever – has, particularly in recent years, spoken out far more forcibly about political matters.
In 2012, James posted a photo of himself (and many of his Miami Heat teammates) wearing hoodies while looking down. The picture was accompanied by “#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice” hashtags. (Martin, an African American teenager, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.)
In 2014, James and several Cleveland Cavaliers teammates wore T-shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” printed on them – the final words of Eric Garner, who died in July 2014 following a confrontation with a New York police officer.
In 2019, James opened up a school in his native Akron, Ohio. “These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,”James told the New York Times in 2019. “When we first started, people knew I was opening a school for kids. Now people are going to really understand the lack of education they had before they came to our school. People are going to finally understand what goes on behind our doors.”
As The Undefeated’s Jerry Bembry wrote of James: “[He is the] most powerful voice in his profession as the willingness to tackle racial inequality, police shootings and even the president of the United States has emboldened other NBA players.”
Correct. Because James understood, sooner than many (and much sooner than Ibra), that his basketball ability affords him the opportunity to make his voice heard on other issues that he cares about. Basketball is a means to a broader end for James: To move the country’s views on race, policing and social justice forward.