James comes full circle

Sports with Sophie

When LeBron James and his cohort of newly minted activists delivered their speech at the ESPY’s this past summer, James said it was “time to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what we are doing to create change.” He said, “Most importantly, (we need to) go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.”

After the speech, I was excited by the immense potential of this new era of athletes-turned-social-activists. I firmly believed that athletes could create real social change in a country that is in dire need of it. I thought (and wrote) that it was about time that these men stepped up to the plate, and I anxiously and excitedly awaited their next at-bat.

But that was on July 13, and as the months went by and I wrote column after column about athletes and social issues, those men’s names didn’t reappear. Sure, they were doing little things, but the big actions taken toward correcting our volatile social climate never surfaced. Every time I opened Bleacher Report or ESPN, a part of me hoped above all that a headline would pop up to convince me that the words of the men at the ESPYs weren’t empty promises. But day after day, I slowly lost faith, and that’s what those words became: just words.

Then something happened. I opened up the Undefeated, and the little part of me that was still dreaming of that ESPY’s speech becoming reality was at last satisfied. The headline, the type that I thought I could only wish for, read, “LeBron James donates $2.5 million to National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Here it was, finally — and ironically just in time for me to end my tenure as columnist on the very topic that I began with.

James’ donation is sizable and at last a clear signal that he’s investing his resources in something that could benefit the African-American community and the nation as a whole. What’s most fitting is that his money will be going to the Muhammad Ali exhibit — a testament to the most prolific athlete-activist ever known.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, known as NMAAHC, was opened Sept. 24, 2016, with one of its main pillars being to explore “what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture.”
The museum is home to a multitude of collections, including ones about Civil Rights, literature, politics and segregation along with special exhibitions — one of which is titled “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field.” The exhibition looks at the contributions made by various athletes on and beyond the field, specifically ones who have entered influential sectors such as law, journalism and business worlds.

The exhibit is a precise echo of the message that James, along with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, put forward at the ESPYs. It is a space that shows the ways in which sports have reached beyond the playing field and into social and political life to specifically alter race relations in the U.S. It is fitting, then, that some of James’ donation will be going to programs that would show children and future athletes the importance of becoming socially, culturally and politically active — even if it might not be their explicit job to do so.

James has also clearly recognized that the most effective and long-lasting path to social change is through education. Back in August 2015, his foundation pledged scholarships to more than 1,000 students in his “I Promise” program based in Akron, Ohio — a donation that, though only reaching a specific and narrow demographic, will nonetheless provide an important chance for many young children in Ohio. His contribution to the museum will allow current and future generations from all over America to explore African-American history and provide them with the knowledge and tools to forge their own future — one hopefully void of the bigotry that is rampant in our own.

Now, James and his fellow leaders have to continue to push for comprehensive and wide-ranging education that will no doubt lead people to become more open and accepting and potentially create the better world that these men spoke of at the ESPYs.

Athletes, while possessing huge amounts of social clout, cannot merely say that it is time for change — they have the potential to make great change as leaders by taking direct action toward it. James, with this step in the right direction, has shown that he is in fact the leader that he purported to be back in July. He has once again instilled in me the belief that athletes can and will take direct action in the coming uncertain future.

Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]