When NBA supernova LeBron James signed a deal to join the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018, he shifted the league’s course. It was a clear legacy play that thoroughly positioned him as an immovable enterprise of change. He was now an official Hollywood lodestone, a one-man orbit with the means to better spread his gospel of social good.
Since entering the league in 2003, James has shown himself to be “more than an athlete.” (Not coincidentally, that’s the motto for Uninterrupted, James’ empowerment brand that caters to professional athletes.) A three-time champion and seven-time MVP, James is the most alluring and dominant talent in the NBA, and, over the years, with that mantle came unprecedented transparency around his stance on issues of police brutality, politics, education, and fatherhood. In time, he evolved into a populist, if sometimes controversial, figure and has done more to shape the league, and the image of its players, than just about anyone else.
In one of James’ more famous exchanges of truth-uttering, from last year, he called President Trump a “bum” on Twitter for using pro basketball as a battlefield for division. Prior to that, he’d donned an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in honor of Eric Garner, the black father who was unjustly killed by NYPD in 2014. More recently, he opened the first I Promise elementary school in Akron, Ohio, his hometown—yet more proof of James’ mission to lift as he climbs. Many of us, those who found sheer marvel in his commitment to issues off the court while continuing to excel on it, cheered him on. We championed him because he championed us. James was an urgent figure in a time of dangerous urgency.
The odd logic of hero worship, however, is how quickly one can so easily become the focus of contempt. In modern times, as cancel culture gnaws at our better instincts, it’s become a slippery, unstable pedestal on which to consider celebrities like James. The mission of one’s enterprise becomes less obvious. Allegiances shift (or, at the very least, become much more clear to those who watch on eagerly). Skepticism bubbles and froths, spills over. We wonder what happened, how perception tilted first slowly then with a deranged swiftness. Over the course of the past two weeks, what we have come to understand LeBron James as—an activist, philanthropist, educator, business titan, and all-around enterprise of change—has been tested. What, and who, does he actually stand for?
The question is not born of scorn but genuine curiosity. Earlier this month, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. The protests were ignited in June as an all-out rebuke against Hong Kong’s disputed extradition bill; the region has since become an intense setting for rallies, sit-ins, and violent police encounters. Morey, who later deleted his tweet, was condemned by the NBA and many of its players. And it’s easy to see why: A decent portion of NBA revenue (around 15 percent) is made in China. Though the league—which has always come across as decidedly more progressive than, say, the NFL—may hold dissenting political views, it has refused to take a public stance on the matter.
When James was originally asked about Morey’s tweet, he criticized it, then later clarified his comments, realizing perhaps he’d misspoken. In an interview this week, looking a little fatigued, James said he would no longer discuss the matter, telling reporters, “We’re not politicians. It’s a huge political thing.” Meanwhile, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has tried to avoid the politics, too, a move that unfairly leaves James as a target of mass loathing. Still, the mania around all that’s transpired over the past handful of weeks makes sense. James is the future and, for many, the conscience of the NBA—right or wrong, whether he’s considered a hypocrite for what he has said (and many consider him one), his viewpoints will always be weaponized against him. (For what it’s worth, he’s not the sole villain here; the NBA’s unilateral silence on the issue has come across as a kind of cowardice.) As James moves, so does the league. He’s a progressive, necessary sports entity, and some people might stipulate that there is no more progressive issue on which to take a stand than the matter of freedom.