Back in the 90’s Michael Jordan was asked if he would support Democratic Party challenger Harvey Gantt, who was running for a North Carolina senate seat against incumbent and strident racist Jesse Helms. Jordan refused and reasoned, “Republicans buy sneakers too”.
Fast forward 25 years to Lebron James demonstrating a similar ambivalence when asked to take a position on the racist police killing of Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice was twelve years old when police officer Tim Loehmann shot him in the stomach for playing with a toy gun; he could have been wearing the latest Lebron sneakers as he was murdered. In seven years, Tamir could have been Lebron James’ teammate.
On January 1st 2016, Baltimore based journalist Tariq Toure called for James to boycott his team’s game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in protest of a blatant miscarriage of justice in the Tamir Rice killing. The hashtag #NoJusticeNoLebron reveals Toure’s strategic view of the role of NBA stars in the movement against police violence.
Famed leftist sportswriter and editor at The Nation magazine, Dave Zirin offered praise in a recent article for the way that #NoJusticeNoLebron has gotten exposure on mainstream media outlets, and provided analysis breaking down various groups responses to the hashtag, ranging from irritated to supportive.
Zirin articulates that the #NoJusticeNoLebron demand is a “piece of strategic genius” the BLM movement should take seriously. His argument goes something like this. The hashtag directly addresses what James once said about his desire to be an icon comparable to Muhammad Ali, as well as his statement that he has, “a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I [Lebron] take that very seriously.” Further, Zirin writes that professional athletes in general are “potential and powerful allies,” and need to be engaged so that they can have a social impact beyond the realm of sports.
While we have general agreement with Zirin’s line of argumentation, there are some gaps in the extent to which this is a “genius” tactic, as well as in the positioning of professional athletes as “allies,” that we’d like to explore. How genius is this tactic? Does it take into account the most effective strategy that NBA stars can play in contributing to a winning movement for black liberation?
Despite the circulation of video evidence of this racist murder at the hands of the police, Lebron James’s standard answer to questions on the Tamir Rice case has been that he, “doesn’t know enough about the case” and/or that “the case is bigger than Lebron”. James’s consistent punting away of the question is at best disappointing in light of his desire to rise to Muhammad Ali status. At worst, James’s refusal to use his star power and social networks to say something more insightful than the two airballs quoted above indicates that maybe this is the new Lebron, emerging as the ink dries on his lifetime contract with Nike.
What exactly is the reason for Lebron’s retreat given what he did in 2014? At a highpoint of mass action in support of the slogan Black Lives Matter, Lebron donned an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt and organized his teammates to wear hoodies for Trayvon. Were these actions taken because of the opening provided by nationwide organizing and direct action by rank-and-file activists with the movement of November/December 2014? Lebron and other players’ actions were the icing on top of what was already a rich struggle of mass actions on the streets. All of this grassroots activity created a situation in which professional athletes like James were inspired and compelled to respond, and some corporate media outlets exposed it all to a wider audience. The collective action of NBA stars in support of black liberation brings us back to the question: how can NBA stars most effectively take action to fight against racist police violence?
For a callout to the professional athlete class to be “strategic genius” it has to be collective in scope and also designed to make gains. What if #NoJusticeNoLebron became #NoJusticeNoNBA? Imagine if every last NBA player is convinced that refusing to play and boycotting their employer (even for one game) in order to demand justice for all the lives lost to racist police killings. When professional athletes threaten to deprive the capitalists millions of their precious dollars–capitalists that employ and rely on their labor–the potential for the team’s owners to put the screws to the state’s “justice system” and police fraternities becomes more tangible. This could be a strategy and tactic to challenge the impunity of the state and it’s killers that approaches the level of “genius” that Zirin assigns to Toure’s much narrower callout.
But this level of callout also begs the question of precedent: why would one of the most well-paid sectors of workers give up thousands of dollars for justice? What precedent is there to even bother mentioning such a bold move? Many think NBA players have never shown an interest in actively challenging the deeply entrenched racism of the U.S. Or have they?
Flashback to the start of the 2014 playoffs. A recorded bedroom rant by known racist and slumlord Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, goes viral. The players, rightfully disgusted, couldn’t continue ignoring such overt racism from an owner in a league where over 70% of the players are black.
NBA players from all teams decided that the most effective way to address this vile anti-black racism was to take collective action: they decided to threaten a players’ strike at the start of the playoffs. A 2014 ESPN article by Arash Markazi features Roger Mason Jr., players union president, stating, “I heard from our players and all of our players felt like boycotting the games tonight . . . We’re talking about all NBA players. We’re talking about the playoff games tonight.” Markazi clarifies that, “Mason said he spoke to player representatives from every team and they were on board with the decision to boycott Tuesday’s games if they weren’t satisfied with the commissioner’s decision.”
Take a guess what the commissioner/owners decided.
Sterling was banned for life. These threats from the players’ union were “strategic genius” and represent how effective the threat of collective action by players was in forcing owners to fire Sterling or give up millions. Couldn’t this precedent force players to look in the mirror and ask, “if I was willing to strike against the well-known albeit now public racism from an owner, why am I not willing to strike against the epidemic of violent and deadly racism by police officers sworn to ‘protect and serve’?”
Flash forward to the fall of 2015. University of Missouri football players’ refusal to practice or play until their university president stepped down. These players’ collective action strategically forced the university’s racist president to step down, a mere one day after he steadfastly refused to concede to student activist demands. The force of the players at Mizzou is yet another precedent that NBA players can be inspired to emulate.
Professional athletes are not merely “allies” to social movements. They have power as workers to directly shutdown the flow of money into their industry. In the case of NBA stars, the millions of dollars that their teams’ owners will lose as a result of their refusal to continue playing games as usual has already shown to be an effective tactic at removing racist owners and university presidents. Why shouldn’t we build off of the past year of athletic resistance to racism and call for total shutdowns of professional sports? To not do so is to keep hearing the equivalent of “Killer Cops buy sneakers too”.
Mizzou’s football team and Lebron James’ teammates have already pointed the way forward. Let’s not relegate them to ally status. Instead, let’s expand their own efforts at camaraderie and solidarity and call for them to take action as workers against state violence. And let’s learn from their example and recognize the role we can play in shutting down the system in the name of justice for all attacked by the state. #JustDoIt