On March 24 2012 NBA Star LeBron James stood with his then Miami Heat teammates to call attention to the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-appointed lawman George Zimmerman. They posted a photo of the squad wearing hoodies, heads bowed, with the hashtag #WeWantJustice. They were following the lead of their team captain Dwayne Wade, who had posted a photo wearing a hooded sweatshirt on his own Instagram account. The team later released a statement, saying: “Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin for their loss and for everyone involved in this terrible tragedy.”
It was a bold move in the age of “I am not a role model” athletes who are quick to dodge commenting on social injustice. It wasn’t a Black Power salute at the Olympics, but if we’re grading on the 2015 social media amplification curve it was very significant.
LeBron has gone on to make other visual and Tweet worthy statements like donning an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before a game against the Brooklyn Nets to acknowledge the choking death of New York man Eric Garner, and the police murder of Missouri teen Mike Brown.
So it was not out of the realm of reason when writer and activist Tariq Touré recently created the Twitter hashtag #NoJusticeNoLeBron, calling for James to stop playing basketball in protest of the outcome of the Tamir Rice case. The 12-year-old Cleveland boy was shot and killed by local police in 2014, but after a year-long investigation a Grand Jury chose not to indict the officers.
Many activists and sports fans came out in support and opposition to the notion that LeBron not play until justice was served. Just a few months ago dozens of Black football players at the University of Missouri joined students seeking the ouster of their President for his lack of action on campus racism. So why couldn’t one of the most popular and influential athletes on the planet do the same?
Conversely, others felt it was unfair to ask LeBron to pull such a move, considering that he is in the midst of a rebuilding campaign with the team and community he abandoned for Miami in 2010. And to be honest, I was one of them. I’ve come to manage my expectations when it comes to millionaires taking a stand on anything, actors, athletes, singers, et al. While we have a rich history of African American entertainers using their fame to work for social change, I’d rather they take that on because they sincerely believe in it, rather than shame them into giving lackluster efforts that ultimately undermine the struggle. Give me Jesse Williams and his sincere and informed commentary over a forced response from a rapper on the BET Awards red carpet any day.
While I didn’t call for LeBron to ride the bench in defiance, I thought it would be significant if he said something—anything—-to acknowledge the life that was lost in his backyard, as he’d done in the past. Unfortunately, I got my wish this Tuesday and am undone.
“For me, I’ve always been a guy who’s took pride in knowledge of every situation that I’ve ever spoke on,” James said following the Cavs‘ win over the Denver Nuggets. “And to be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone. But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”
LeBron’s plea of ignorance on this particular issue is troubling to me for many reasons. This is as if Carmelo Anthony said that he “needed to hear more details” after being asked about Eric Garner’s death. Hometown pride has to extend beyond the arena, and this is something LeBron has driven home in many of his recent advertisements. If you’re going to be a man of the people you have to walk that walk and be informed. This case has been in the news for over a year! In fact, his latest ad for Samsung, where he takes us on a virtual tour of Cleveland’s working class, is the other reason I’m incensed by his lack of knowledge at this moment.
Just two days ago millions of basketball and hip-hop fans sat at their TVs with their mouths agape as LeBron lip-synced the lyrics to Public Enemy’s “Welcome To the Terrordome” in an ad for Samsungs’s new VR gear. The voice of one of the most militant and impactful artists of our generation left his lips after he declared that he had to get one for “The ‘land.”
As excited as I was to hear one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen on my television in primetime, the spot gave me pause. Public Enemy’s revolutionary verbiage being used to hawk virtual reality tech felt a tad duplicitous. The song, from Public Enemy’s 1998 classic Fear of a Black Planet, could barely be heard without extensive censoring when it was released. Chuck D was damn near rhyming for his sanity after being embroiled in controversy over comments that his bandmate Professor Griff made about Jewish people. When he rhymed “Laser, anesthesia, maze ya/Ways to blaze your brain and train ya” he could have well been warning against the same virtual reality goggles being promoted! But I guess “the gear I wear got em going in fear” will now brandish a Samsung logo.
I was hesitant to express this publicly for fear of being deemed anti-PE, which is the furthest thing from the truth. But one thing listening to PE showed me is that you can’t just accept anything at face value unquestioned, even them. But I sat on saying much more until I read LeBron’s statement regarding Tamir Rice. He stood on national television and mouthed the words “Black to the bone your home is my home, but welcome to the terror dome…” It gave me chills. Like Black rappers, Black athletes are reluctant to acknowledge their race—and the challenges that come with it—on a national stage, but there he was. Defiant. Loud. It was amazing. And if anyplace feels like the Terrordome these days, it’s the United States.
But when it came time for him to speak his own words LeBron plead ignorance in an age when the most basic of information is a web search away. If that fancy Samsung phone you’re trying to get us to buy isn’t good for that, what is the point? Now your Black Power karaoke rings more hollow now than ever. “Terrodome” was dedicated in part to the memory of Yusuf Hawkins, another Black teen killed by a white mob in Brooklyn in 1989. So, LeBron when you’re done playing in that VR world come back and meet us in ours. The ‘Land wants a championship, but the ‘Land needs justice more. Do your Googles.