When LeBron James walked into our makeshift studio at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., we had no idea what the Cleveland Cavaliers' superstar forward was going to say. We had asked for the interview for our "Outside the Lines" story on NBA athletes and political activism, specifically to see if he'd address why he declined to sign then-teammate Ira Newble's letter a year ago condemning China for its role in the genocide in Darfur.
At the time Newble presented the letter, James said he didn't have enough information to speak on the issue, let alone sign anything. And he was ripped from coast to coast, by pundits, columnists and social observers. They all characterized James as a greedy, spoiled athlete who cared more about his business interests in China than the slaughter of a reported 400,000 non-Arabs in Darfur.
To be sure, China's record on human rights issues was, and remains, a sensitive topic, especially for James' employer, the NBA, which has had its eyes on China for more than 20 years. And then add the pressure of James' $90 million contract with Nike, which has its own designs on the vast Chinese market. James is so wildly popular there that he already has two China-only marketed shoes and his own museum in Shanghai, filled with artifacts from his life, including a copy of his birth certificate. And right now, China estimates it has 300 million basketball fans — the same amount as the entire population in the United States.
That's a lot of feet to cover.
And so when Newble approached James last spring, he paused, because he said he didn't know enough about the situation. And now he was sitting down in front of our cameras after agreeing to address the issue. So would he actually decide to speak out on something as horrific as genocide, or would he be like Mike [Jordan]?
It was Michael Jordan who, many observers feel, paved the way for star athletes to be apolitical. Back in 1990, he famously declined to back a Democratic African-American Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina by saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
During his career, Jordan crafted a blueprint for commercial and endorsement success by declining to take a stance on anything controversial or even slightly political and the younger generation listened. Want to be like Mike? Then do like Mike.
"Within this group of young athletes, this whole age group, there is a huge vacuum of being apolitical on global issues," said Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. "I am sure that many athletes today still look to Jordan and say, 'How did he do it?' and 'I can take those same steps.' It's not going to be helpful to whatever endorsement opportunities you might have to be politically active."
Shropshire and others point out that the images of athletes as political activists we recall most — Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' gloved fists on the 1968 medal stand, Muhammad Ali's refusal to enter the draft in 1967, and Arthur Ashe being arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. — were all related to issues that directly affected those athletes in a much more personal way.
To read Ira Newble's letter to the Chinese government, go to the related link above.
Today is a different era with a far different political climate.