A new story: Be more like James

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Outside the Lines is a new column series that explores the intersection of sports with race and gender, and runs on a biweekly basis. There have long been pioneers in the sports industry who have broken from tradition and overcome adversity, significantly contributing to positive change in our society. This series attempts to continue necessary conversations by highlighting both contemporary and historical individuals, movements and their impact on making sports more socially just.

It’s a tale as old as time. You might recognize it by the title of “Shut Up and Dribble,” “Find a Country That Works Better” or the slightly less hostile “Athletes Unite, Politics Divide.” They aren’t sequels, merely slightly different editions of the same story. The story involves people, often white, telling others who often come from marginalized communities to not discuss matters outside of the sport they play.

Although A.C. Milan and former Los Angeles Galaxy player Zlatan Ibrahimović used a different tone than Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham last week, the underlying command remained consistent between the two as Ibrahimović criticized Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and other athletes for their activism.

“[LeBron] is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimović said. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do.”

But that’s the thing, Ibrahimović. Life in our society is not composed of neatly arranged, mutually exclusive categories. When an athlete begins playing at a professional level, they don’t leave behind their identity.

It would be like saying that as an employee of a company, the employee should only spend their time and energy working for that company. If there are matters in the world that upset or anger them and even affect them personally, they should be expected to turn the other way and keep at their job. It’s baffling and somewhat inhumane to even consider. The ability to ignore inequities that permeate every part of our society is a form of privilege in itself.

Now, Ibrahimović might argue that there’s a difference between everyday people and those with national and international prominence — perhaps he would say that you and I can be both employees and activists but someone with power should not.

But having such worldwide recognition is all the more reason to engage with local and national politics. James is essentially doing two things — speaking and acting from his own experiences and amplifying the voices of others. Given the number of people who are consistently ignored, pushed aside or forgotten, James’ use of his platform amplifies the voices of those who are too often silenced or dismissed.

At the end of the day, James is doing the work we should all be doing — athlete or not, celebrity or not. We ought to be engaged in improving our society whether or not we are personally affected by its perils and whether or not we can pretend to be unaffected by the rest of the world.

Yes, sports have a deep, unique power to unite, but activism is not so different. People engage in activism to better our neighbors, to make our communities more just and to build a society that is more fair for all. Those goals are not antithetical to sports or the sports community.

It’s time we move past the harmful rhetoric that shames empathy and accountability, and instead turn the thought on its head. Professional athletes as well as everyday people engaging in activism shouldn’t be the exception but the norm. It’s time for a new tale — this one has been read far too many times.

Surina Khurana is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.