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LeBron James and what’s wrong with ‘Sticking to Sports’

ByWill Matthews

Feb 1, 2018

LeBron James is not a fan of Donald Trump. Last week the celebrated basketball player once again criticised the President for enabling racism in the United States, stating: “The guy in control has given people and racism […] an opportunity to be out and outspoken without fear.” James’s words will likely resonate with many in the States, and indeed further afield.

James’ criticisms of Trump have been frequent and forthright, his latest words reiterating his disapproval for the current President. In September – when the President rescinded the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House after the Warriors’ players considered not turning up – James tweeted Trump: “Going to White House was an honour until you showed up.”

The American joins a long list of athletes who have used their platform to speak out against social and political injustices. Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously performed a black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, in what was to become one of the most iconic images of the civil rights struggle in the United States. More recently, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality and racism in the US by kneeling during the national anthem.

When wading into political debates, especially in the United States, sports people are often told to ‘stick to sports’. The maxim has become something of a stock response to those athletes perceived to have trespassed into a domain in which their voice is of no value.

At first pass though, the logic of ‘stick to sports’ is a bit odd. The phrase implies that we all ought to dutifully stick to our respective professions, only allowing the politicians and political analysts an actual opinion. You’re a barista and you don’t like Trump? Doesn’t matter mate, stick to coffee.

Clearly this isn’t the world the ‘stick to sports’ crowd envisage, since those imploring athletes to ‘stick to sports’ hold strong political opinions themselves without being political analysts. But it’s unclear there’s anything special about an athlete’s job that disqualifies them from civil discourse.

It’s unreasonably selfish to insist that sports stars owe a responsibility to the fans to maintain the escapism that sport provides. An athlete’s job is to excel in their particular field, and whether or not those who enjoy watching their endeavours use sport as a distraction from their own life should have no bearing on what athletes can and cannot say.

Some individuals claim that since athletes are generally less educated, they are less qualified to talk about politics. Setting aside the irony that someone might defend Donald Trump, a man who described ranium as “this thing called nuclear weapons”, by appealing to his critic’s lack of qualification on the topic, this reasoning doesn’t stand up either. For a start, there clearly are many intelligent athletes, and there’s no good evidence to suggest that athletes are genuinely less intelligent than the general population.

More seriously, by this logic only those highly educated or highly intelligent in society have license to talk about politics. But that’s not how politics works.

We can’t just disqualify voices we deem unintelligent. Many members of the ‘stick to sports’ crowd will not be highly educated or highly intelligent, but they rightly regard themselves as entitled to hold and share political opinions.

Ultimately, one suspects that for the ‘stick to sports’ crowd the real issue isn’t athletes being political, it’s athletes expressing political views contrary to their own.

It’s seriously unusual to hear someone telling an athlete to ‘stick to sports’ when their personal view is in step with the athlete’s.

Indeed, the same individuals who instruct Lebron James and Colin Kaepernick to ‘stick to sports’ welcome Tom Brady’s endorsement and friendship with Trump. The hypocrisy should alert us to the real motive behind the expression.


Image Courtesy of Keith Allison

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