On August 15th, Cavaliers forward LeBron James addressed Charlottesville’s violence at the LeBron James Family Foundation reunion.
James stressed the need for love in times like these. However true this statement may be, love unfortunately does not run this country— money does. Some of the biggest money makers for this country are the NFL and the NBA. The NFL’s revenue for the 2016 season was $14 billion and the NBA had an expected revenue of $8 billion for the 2016-2017 season. These are no small deposits into America’s economy, especially when compared to the total government spending of smaller states in America such as Delaware (10.2 billion) and Rhode Island (9.2 billion). As essential as love is, it may be more promising to engage with the athletic leaders of this country’s pocketbooks in order to get them to listen and take action. The faces of the NFL and NBA—Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr., LeBron James, or Steph Curry— could link up and charter real change.
Individually, a peaceful demonstration may not end well for the brave person’s career, hence the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick; it’s easy to oust one person, especially if he’s standing alone. The suggestion of a collective, inter-league coalition whose sole purpose is to change the status quo for people of color and marginalized communities could be historic and effective if executed correctly. Right away, this is where the opposition insists that professional sports are not the place for politics. What has become more interesting is how passionate the opposition is towards keeping the two separate. It’s as if they feel the combination of sports and politics will foster unwanted results. This is a valid point considering professional athletics is one of the few entities people of color have effectively infiltrated; 71.5% of the NFL is non-white, as reported in the 2015 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League. Similarly, 81.7% of the NBA were people of color for the 2015-2016 season. Imagine if the prominent athletes of color used their platforms for change.
With these vast majorities, it could be seen as irresponsible for players of color not to link up and discuss the state of their future as it relates to the current administration (NFL, NBA, & Presidential), its goals, and its reactions to current events (i.e. Charlottesville, public schools, Flint water crisis). After all, our billionaire President, and most likely the NFL and NBA commissioners, have an ear fine-tuned to the language of money. If their money simply gives the illusion of being in jeopardy, conversations will be had with the rattlers until common ground is found to cease unwanted financial uncertainty. After all, it was once said that money talks and bullshit walks. Show me the money, as Jerry McGuire would say.
A cumulative effort between the faces of the NFL and NBA would directly impact the front office’s money bags. This is not an insinuation for sitting out of games in protest. It would be more favorable to continue playing in an effort to show that political voices are not something that is owned by the team when a contract is signed. Plus, the leagues have games on different days so there wouldn’t be a sense of a united front. A common ground for both leagues is cable networks. Networks lead to partnerships, sponsorships, and endorsements thanks to the air time athletes receive from them.
A more elaborate scheme would be to use the media advantageously. There are hundreds of commercials and promos done annually by players that are worth millions of dollars to networks. Instead of Dak Prescott shooting a seasonal commercial for Christmas every year, he could agree to only go in front of the camera and talk about racial injustices or not do the shoot at all. On media day, Kevin Durant could decide to only talk about the racialized project known as his upbringing and how there is youth across the country growing up the same way. For an entire press conference, Chris Paul could agree to only answer questions related to the white vs. black education gap. The goal of re-centering these conversations to topics of social justice is to take small steps towards the lofty goal of true equality and justice for all.
These suggested conversation topics are no walk in the park. If athletes of color, and all people of color, truly want equality, which they seem to, then all parties will have to do some homework into the issues. The newly learned information would start critical conversations led by the high-profile athletes and their platforms. Critical conversations are not a new concept. They basically entail two or more people coming together to express their differences regarding situations with high-stake outcomes that can impact generations and nation. Unified, top-tier professional athletes can use their platform to directly impact the money bags of our country’s leaders. Few, if any, general managers want their players talking about politics, and especially not during a live-streamed post-game press conference.
To remain politically neutral, and therefore more marketable for the NFL/NBA, many athletes—LeBron, Russell Wilson, Carmelo Anthony and a host of others— have their own foundations dedicated to revamping communities in need. Foundations seem to be eye candy for interested sponsors and endorsers. Regardless of an athlete’s political views, sponsors and endorsers will still want their products promoted. If the political views of an athlete and the athlete himself remain separate, he is more marketable in sales, therefore making more money off both conservative and liberal customers instead of one or the other. With the creation of a foundation, it separates the person from the cause.
Instead of saying, “LeBron is working on…” the phrase becomes, “LeBron’s foundation is working on….” This seemingly small language change is important because it creates a distinction between “LeBron the athlete” and “LeBron the philanthropist.” One of the ways to connect these two personas is to discuss politics and activism during press conferences and on media day. This connection is vital because most likely it’s “LeBron the athlete” who influences the front office more so than “LeBron the philanthropist.” As important as foundations are, it’s more important to have them and other political and social justice issues a part of daily conversation, as opposed to a topic in a seasonal commercial. This is something that both NFL and NBA players could implement.
The joint effort of the leagues’ franchise players to control the narrative media outlets present by only talking about prevalent issues facing communities of color until they are addressed and action-planned into resolution will grasp the attention of anyone who may have been previously oblivious to them. To take it a step further, of course, the players could warm-up with their shirts inside-out, join Kaepernick in his kneel, or create and execute any other form of protest that they choose. These actions, however poignant their point may be, are much more about the visual display of outrage. The surrounding conversations are able to pick and choose what to take away from the demonstrations and possibly create an entirely different narrative.
If and when the media conversations are taken over, there’s a clarity of expectations and knowledge presented to command the answers and results that are of the utmost importance. While the weight of change does not solely rest on athletes of color, they could extend their platforms to ignite new, solution-oriented critical and well over-due conversations with this country’s leaders.