NBA superstar LeBron James has been on the receiving end of what far too many are calling unfair criticism over his "lack of leadership" on COVID and COVID vaccine issues. I feel no sympathy.
James has courted controversy by injecting himself into a myriad of "racial justice" issues over the course of the last several years. He famously took umbrage at Fox News host Laura Ingraham's suggestion that he and others in the league "shut up and dribble" rather than fan the flames of discord that were erupting in the streets of American cities.
Others pointed to Michael Jordan's famously wise acknowledgement about his own political views that "Republicans buy sneakers too," suggesting that star athletes greatly diminish their appeal when they take public stands on divisive public policy issues. It was the same counsel that soccer striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic offered the Laker star:
"[LeBron] 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. Do what you're good at. Do the category you do... That is the big first mistake people do when they become famous and they become in a certain status. Stay out of it. Just do what you do best because it doesn't look good."
James took offense at all those suggestions, countering that he had built for himself a platform of influence that he intended to use whether his ideological opponents liked it or not.
"There's no way I will ever just stick to sports, I understand this platform and how powerful my voice… I speak from a very educated mind. I'm kind of the wrong guy to go at because I do my homework."
But there's another reason beyond ideological opposition that James should have considered heeding the counsel to concentrate on his craft rather than controversy. This uncomfortable moment should have provided the first clue:
Watching LeBron's unintentional imitation of a 7th grader who had just been called on to give a book report over a text he forgot to read, are we to assume that was his "educated mind" there on full display?
I really don't mean to be snarky, but that's the flip side of this "I have a powerful platform and voice" coin that James has chosen. When you've elected the path of civic engagement and political activism, it's not a switch that you get to turn off and on at moments of convenience. When you choose to place your "powerful voice" in the center of the cultural tempest, you don't get to claim superstar athlete immunity when others challenge your consistency or hold you accountable.
This means those calling out James' hypocrisy when he speaks against "repressive voter ID laws" in Georgia but happily cashes checks from China financed by literal slavery aren't playing whataboutism – they are holding an activist accountable for his lack of integrity.
That's exactly what ESPN host Stephen A. Smith, fresh off his own buffoonish take on Tim Tebow's "white privilege," was talking about when he criticized LeBron for his refusal to take the lead pushing for COVID vaccination within the vulnerable black community, all while breaking the league's health protocol.
"Everybody has the right to their own privacy. You don't want to let people know whether you took the vaccine or not, that is your business. But there's a whole bunch of things that LeBron James has elected to speak up about, that he felt was a detriment to our community. Because he's a leader and he wanted to bring attention and a voice that matters, he felt compelled to speak up. But on the matter of the vaccine, you got nothing to say all of these months. Nah. It don't work that way. You either want to be out front and center, bringing a voice to issues, or you don't. Period."
Set aside Smith's theatrics and consider his statement on merit. Superstar athletes – whether it's Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady – have the same right as anyone to choose to avoid public commentary on social or geopolitical issues. Their public figure status should not deprive them of their right to anonymity when it comes to personal values and convictions, or religious and political views.
That's why I always thought the "Taylor Swift has been oddly silent on (fill in whatever political issue was en vogue)" phase on Twitter was especially dumb. That is until she started offering presidential endorsements and political hot takes.
The same is true of James. You are more than free to be an athlete and shoe salesman who keeps your ideological preferences within the walls of your home. "Shut up and dribble" (or sing, or dance, or throw the pigskin, etc.) has been a lucrative approach for years for countless professional athletes who have found fulfillment and purpose being symbols of unity.
But when you choose to "speak out" without gathering facts, intentionally divide the country repeatedly through your rhetoric, slander police officers, and pretend that law enforcement is "hunting" you as you jog around your posh, ritzy neighborhood, the whirlwind you reap is entirely one of your own making.