LeBron James reminds us that we're far from a world where we can 'stick to sports'
OAKLAND, Calif. — When LeBron James took to the dais at NBA Finals media day Wednesday — 28 hours before the tip-off of Game 1 of Cavs-Warriors III — it was clear that his mind wasn't on basketball.
He's arguably the greatest player in the history of basketball — arguably the greatest athlete in American history — but it was clear that he was trying to process why hate was being thrown his way, again.
Not the sports-talk radio, hot-take kind of "hate," either.
The kind of direct evil that can knock even an elite athlete off-balance.
On Wednesday morning, Los Angeles police arrived at the front gate of James' Brentwood, Calif., home, where a racial slur — the N-word — was graffitied.
James wasn't there when the incident occurred — he was at the Cavs' team hotel in San Francisco. His family wasn't in the Los Angeles house, either. Everyone was safe and that, of course, is the most important thing.
The slur has already been painted over, and, as James said, time will help him and his family move on from the shocking incident.
Anyone who has ever spent any time around LeBron could read the body language. They could hear the pain and frustration in his voice. He was thoughtful and pointed in answering questions Wednesday, but it was clear: He was livid.
"No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how
many people admire you, being black in America is — it's tough," James said.
He's more than justified in being frustrated that he couldn't comfort his wife, mother, and mother-in-law, or talk to his two sons face-to-face. His clear anger that this incident was distracting him from focusing on the Warriors and this long-anticipated NBA Finals was justified as well.
But amid the half-distance stares and tightly clutched microphone, James said something shocking:
"If this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing, then I'm not against it happening to us again. I mean, it's as long as my family is safe."
He's "okay" with it. He's not against it happening to his family again.
That's incredible perspective, when you really think about what that means. It's perspective that I doubt many of us could have in the same situation.
It's not false martyrdom, either. Just because racism isn't as openly brazen as it was a few decades ago doesn't mean that it's any less present or any less biting. Social media and user publishing on the Internet has opened millions of new avenues for evil. You can try to insulate yourself from it, but things like that have a way to seep through.
In recent years James has become more and more outspoken about social issues. He's made a clear choice to use the platform that comes along with being the greatest basketball player in the world to speak his mind in a world that seems to become more and more chaotic by the day.
We're not in a "post-racial" society, and James is big enough and strong enough to carry the weight of being a reminder of that.
For the "stick-to-sports" crowd — the people who think that the ball games should be a politics-free zone — it's an unwelcome change. They don't want or need James to do anything but play basketball.
But the incident at James' house is a reminder that he — and the sports world at large — can't "stick to sports." It might be unwelcome to the insulated and ignorant that a professional athlete is also a citizen with opinions on his country, but how is James supposed to "stick to sports" when the real world — the non-sports universe — is one where the N-word can be sprayed across the fence of his multi-million-dollar home in one of the richest communities in the United States?
James can stick to sports when that kind of hate isn't a clear and present danger, and clearly, in 2017, it shamefully still is.
James said Wednesday that his top priority isn't basketball — it's his family. And after that, it's being a role model.
That's why James speaks up. What needs to be highlighted from this ordeal is that there are still people out there with twisted rationales. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that in 2016 there were 917 hate groups operating in the United States. Plus, how many people with hate in their hearts aren't members of a neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, or anti-Muslim group? (And don't think there are areas of the country exempt from this — even liberal-bastion California is teeming with these hate groups.)
That's why James is okay with it happening again. In the long run, it cost him only a coat of paint — these issues hit much harder for everyday people of color.
"It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America," he said Wednesday "And, you know, hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. And even though that it's concealed most of the time, even though people hide their faces and will say things about you and when they see you they smile in your face, it's a life every single day."