In the past week, the topic of athletes “sticking to sports” has been in the headlines again. Only this time, it wasn’t a Fox News pundit starting the controversy – it was another athlete.
Swedish soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic went after LeBron James for using his superstar status to promote his politics, saying “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do … Stay out of [politics]. Just do what you do best because it doesn’t look good.”
James didn’t appreciate that, and he fired back a couple of days later, saying “I will never shut up about things that are wrong … There’s no way I will ever just stick to sports because I know with this platform, how powerful my voice is.”
He also accused Ibrahimovic of being a hypocrite, since he spoke out against racism in Sweden just a couple of years ago. However, Ibrahimovic doubled down on his take earlier this week, saying “Racism and politics are two different things. We athletes unite the world, politics divides the world … Athletes must be athletes, politicians must be politicians.”
Now, I’m not going to argue with Ibrahimovic about politics dividing the world and sports uniting it. I completely agree that’s true, and in a perfect world, athletes would never have to get involved with political or social issues. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and since politicians are completely inept at addressing the issues facing our country, I’m perfectly fine with athletes picking up the slack and drawing attention to those issues.
James is one of the most well-known athletes in the world today, so when he talks, people listen. If he wants to use that huge platform to bring awareness to the issues he sees facing his community, such as racial injustice and inequality, who are we to say he shouldn’t do that? I understand that many people see sports as a way to escape from the “real world” and they don’t want to see athletes like James giving lectures on injustice when they turn on SportsCenter. But you know what my message is to those people? Get over it or change the channel.
Athletes are people, not commodities. They are not just performers on a field or court for our entertainment. They are real people with real thoughts, real opinions and real fears. At least in the NBA, the majority of players are also Black, so things that happen in the Black community affect them personally. If they want to speak up about those issues like James has been doing for the past few years, they should absolutely be able to without people coming after them for “getting into politics.” Here’s a thought: maybe if politicians actually did their job of serving the community properly, athletes wouldn’t have to get involved. But that’s not the case.
I want to be clear that I don’t feel it’s an athlete’s responsibility to get involved with off-the-field issues. Many athletes choose to stick to sports and not get involved with more polarizing topics, and that’s completely fine. That’s their choice, and nobody should be coming after them for not being outspoken. But when an athlete does decide to venture into other issues, he or she should not be told not to. When they decide to speak up about things they believe in, they do so knowing that everyone doesn’t agree with them. They do so knowing that they may lose fans or followers. But they do so because they feel it’s the right thing for them to do. That takes courage.
The last response people should have to that courage is trying to cut them down and tell them their opinion doesn’t matter because they’re “just an athlete” and they need to “stick to sports.” Even if you disagree with what they’re doing, you should at least try to understand why they’re doing it. People will never agree on everything, but hopefully we can at least get to the point where we agree that athletes standing up for what they believe in is their right and nobody should put them down for doing so.
Athletes, especially star ones like James and Ibrahimovic, have a huge platform in our society. How they decide to use that platform is completely up to them. If Ibrahimovic wants to just be an athlete, no problem. If James wants to toe the line between being an athlete and an activist, that’s fine too. Neither is right or wrong. As with everything in life, these decisions have consequences. But at the end of the day, it’s their platform and their decision how to use it. Nobody else should be getting involved.