On Saturday, LeBron James — the most important athlete in America — denounced the most powerful man in the world on Twitter. James called out president Donald Trump, saying that America “deserves better” than the 45th president after he led the country through another week of chaos.
The tweet came hours after a car slammed into counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing at least one person. It also came after Trump chose not to condemn the Nazi/white supremacists the counter/protesters who were hurt or killed were there to counter-protest in the first place, instead saying that “many sides” were responsible for violence at the Unite the Right march. And it came after a week where Trump taunted North Korea with threats of nuclear war.
James’ political leanings are no mystery at this point in his life. He heavily supported Democratic candidates for president in the last three elections, including Hillary Clinton against Trump last November. His politics undoubtedly influenced his belief that America deserves better than Trump in the White House sending out neutral messages of unity without disavowing the hatred of some of his supporters. And he was not the only person in the NBA to condemn Nazis on Saturday.
But James publicly challenging the president like this is unique among athletes because of who LeBron James is. It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of his celebrity. There’s just so much coverage of everything he does that it’s easy to forget how important a public figure he really is. This offseason, for example, he’s sniped at a current teammate over a trade request. Every Instagram video he’s posted has been analyzed to decipher exactly what he’s trying to say about Kyrie Irving. But his addressing of Trump in this way is much more than that.
James has a very complete understanding of who he is and his level of celebrity in America. When he speaks out like this, he knows it’s going to draw attention. And not on a beef/drama scale that we so often cover in sports. James’ words can create real change. When important things happen, James has consistently risen to the occasion to speak with eloquence. He stood tall when his Los Angeles home was vandalized during the NBA Finals, holding a long press conference where he talked about race in America.
“Being a black man in America is very frightening,” James said in June when he sat down with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols shortly after the incident.
They were important words for much of America to hear. So rarely has an athlete in the modern world been able to speak like that about race in America because few in his position in the sports landscape have ever taken the opportunity to do so. Unlike Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James is too good to be blacklisted and too valuable to be dropped by sponsors for his words. When he speaks about things like this, people have to listen.
And James continues to impress in moments like these. On Saturday, a 32-year-old basketball player was more eloquent than the president of the United States. It’s not something that’s in his job description as best player in the NBA, but it’s clearly something he values about his role in the sports spotlight. It’s also a signal that James knows he’s above needing to stay quiet for the sake of his brand. He knows his legacy will be forever debated. But unlike Michael Jordan, he’s not courting both sides of the political spectrum while he’s still an active player. For the millions of people — especially kids and people of color — who look up to James, that distinction is an essential part of his being.
How often in history has the most important athlete in the country been in direct, public opposition to the president? Sure, the medium of communication has changed, and everyone can just reply “daddy” to James on Twitter in an attempt to trivialize it. But the message is clear, and it got through. Trump has made it clear that he’s desperate for praise, and James registered his disproval in as direct a way possible on Saturday night.
The end result of subtweeting someone in 2017 is usually just a Twitter beef, or maybe a 4-point shot competition. But not when LeBron James calls out the president of the United States. It should be made clear, though, that if we’re lucky few things will actually come of tweets that have dominated our week. No bombs will be launched, no Twitter feuds will be started and we as a nation will focus on more important things. Maybe we’ll actually band together and find a way to move forward to solve the problems that create discrimination, hatred and poverty.
But we know better than that. The crisis in Charlottesville will end and fade into memory, whether over time or with the advent of another, more outrageous problem. The president will continue to Tweet Through It, and he’ll undoubtedly disappoint another large portion of the electorate. Few can accurately predict the future, but I don’t think anyone could have imagined 2017 being so chaotic, so fractured and absurd that seeing a tweet from the verified account of an NBA superstar is somehow comforting.
James putting himself directly in Trump’s path is a message as clear as any he’s ever sent: he’s not hiding who he is and what he believes. And in Trump’s America — where the Detroit Red Wings disavow Nazis more strongly than the president — that message is needed now more than ever.