We may never witness another Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring, but LeBron James could be the closest we ever come to seeing a world-famous athlete taking on a similar social activist role.
The outpouring of reverence for Ali following his death on Friday didn’t just speak to what an incredible athlete he was, but also to what a magnanimous human he had been. There’s unfortunately
a widespread belief that sports shouldn’t mix with other subjects that are ever-present in our lives – culture, race, politics, etc.
That view has less to do with how intertwined those sectors are with sports and more to do with how much people treat sports as escapism. “What does (blank) have to do with it?” is a common phrase that’s often thrown around when people start to feel uncomfortable with outside issues seeping into the games they love.
Ali was great because he didn’t just scale that dividing wall, he ob- literated it. He spoke out on issues he cared about and wasn’t afraid to take a stance – something that has since gone missing from our most renowned athletes.
Here’s the thing. The bigger your star as an athlete, the bigger your platform. It’s cliche, but Stan Lee’s famous expression, “With great power comes great responsibility”, holds true in this case.
You know who didn’t understand that responsibility or simply didn’t care? Two of the greatest athletes ever: Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
Jordan famously commented, “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, while Woods has never been one to use his voice as a power of change for social issues.
Granted, it’s not entirely fair to expect certain things out of the Jordans and Woods of the world because point of view is different for different people. But rather than always criticising the athletes who don’t use their fame for social justice, we should choose to recog- nise the ones that do.
Ali was part of the old guard, which includes names like Bill Russell and Jim Brown.
The new guard is headed by LeBron, who for all the comparisons he’s drawn to Jordan as far as a basketball player, is on another level when it comes to being a human being.
His nickname is ‘King James’, but LeBron is very much a man of the people.
If you’ve ever heard him talk about his childhood, you’ve heard James refer to himself as a statistic. He’s proud to have reached the heights of success he has despite having been an African-American kid raised by a single mother in the inner city. That’s why he’s given so much back to the youth, including providing scholarships for more than 2,000 children in partnership with the University of Akron.
No one bats an eyelash at philanthropy, but sticking your neck out and expressing your opinion on social matters is a risk not many famous athletes feel comfortable taking. LeBron does.
In 2012, James used his platform to express solidarity for Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen shot to death in a hooded sweatshirt, by posting a picture to social media of him and his Miami Heat team-mates donning a hoodie with heads bowed and faces hidden.
In 2014, James again made a statement by wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm-ups to show support for Eric Garner, another African-American killed by law enforcement.
Those are just two examples of James being unafraid to use his voice for a larger purpose and it’s no wonder then that his courage and willingness to grab the baton from the older generation started with Ali’s influence.
“When I was a kid, I was amazed by what Ali did in the ring,” LeBron told ESPN.com. “As I got older and started to read about him and watch things about him, I started to realise what he did in the ring was secondary to what he meant outside of the ring – just his influence, what he stood for.
“The reason why he’s the GOAT (greatest of all time) is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable.
“It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor – obviously, who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] – Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something.”
That list of modern megastars following suit may be thin, but LeBron is certainly carrying on their legacy, even if few others will.
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