ESPN, not content to cover sports, wants in on the burgeoning social-justice market as well. In “Waiting for LeBron," an ESPN magazine essay posted May 3, Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow pondered why Cleveland Cavaliers basketball legend LeBron James backed off his brief anti-gun activism.
That flurry -- which consisted mostly of a few tweets and remarks after a practice -- came after the tragic drive-by-shooting death last October of the five-month-old daughter of Cleveland resident and avid Cavaliers fan Charles Wakefield. Saslow’s histrionic analysis of James “the athlete and the activist” makes it clear that LeBron has (somehow) let Wakefield and his city down, by only going halfway in fighting racism and police shootings and gun violence in general, while noting in a single sentence that James, who lives in a gated mansion surrounded by bodyguards, likes to fire guns himself.
After the shooting last October, LeBron declared that “there’s no room for guns”: "There's no room for that. There's no room for guns, first of all, but then for violence toward kids or anybody. I see the news go across my phone and I'm sitting there in front of my three kids, so it automatically just hit me.”
Newsbusters has pointed out the hypocrisy of a lecture on guns, which millions of Americans rely on for self-protection, from a multimillionaire who has a contingent of presumably armed bodyguards and who lives in a vast gated estate in the hills, well outside high-crime Cleveland.
In those first few hours on Oct. 1, one voice in Cleveland resonated loudest of all. LeBron James was the one person in the city who remained equally popular with politicians, big corporations and residents on the Lower East Side. For more than a decade, he had moderated his political voice, usually speaking in universalities, but on this night he heard about Aavielle and reacted on social media with raw indignation.
"Like seriously man!!!!" he wrote on Twitter to his 23 million followers. "A baby shot in the chest in Cleveland. It's been out of control but it's really OOC. Ya'll need to chill the F out."
Then, three minutes later: "C'mon man. Let's do and be better! This can't be the only way."
JAMES HAD BEEN watching TV on the couch in his living room when he first saw pictures of Charles' anguished face come across the news feed on his phone. James' own children, ages 11, 8 and 1, roamed the family's 19-room estate on Idlebrook Drive. Their house was set on 7 acres in the hills between Akron and Cleveland, less than an hour from Charles' apartment, protected by 24-hour security, steel gates and a series of guardhouses scattered across the property. It was the safest place in the state.
But presumably none of those awful guns that he himself complained about.
Saslow previously promoted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control bus tour in the Washington Post. It’s clear Saslow is a gun control activist, and wants to know why James quit the team.
Split like this, James cushioned his social criticism in generalities and cautious gestures. He had hosted a rally for Barack Obama in 2008, but before endorsing the candidate, James had spoken about the universal importance of voter registration. He had posed in a hoodie for Trayvon Martin -- but surrounded himself with his Miami Heat teammates. He had worn an "I Can't Breathe" shirt to protest police brutality -- but only after a few other NBA players had done so first. When asked about the country's growing racial discord in 2014 and 2015, he said things like: "We have to grow together and not apart." Or: "I'm not pointing the blame at anybody." Or: "Society has come a long way, but it just shows how much further we still have to go."
Saslow reduced accusations of anti-gun hypocrisy to a single sentence.
And now here came one of those opportunities to lead, on gun violence in Cleveland, which had experienced an 18 percent jump in homicides and a 31 percent increase in assaults with a firearm that year. Instead of going halfway, this time James had been unequivocal: "There's no room for guns," he said, during that same news conference after Aavielle's death.
Afterward, gun control groups thanked him -- while gun rights groups called him a hypocrite and posted photos of him firing a machine gun at a shooting range....
And there James is back in January 2014, looking vastly untroubled by the machine gun in his grip.
A photo caption with the article laid on the guilt: “Wakefield and his family would spend the months after the shooting wondering whether LeBron would follow his statements with action.”
Wakefield the father was understandably an emotional wreck after his daughter’s death, watching Cavaliers games on repeat. Sounded like a diagnosis of depression, but under Saslow’s massaging, it became a story of LeBron James’ burden, with the woes of not only Cleveland but black America on his shoulders:
....For LeBron, basketball had always come first, in part because his play on the court earned him his power. So instead of talking more about guns or social issues in Cleveland, James chose to stay silent, and whether out of a single-minded focus or cautious self-regulation, he refused to comment late in the year when asked about the presidential race, the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland and even the biggest story in the city: the tragic death of Tamir Rice.
Just as the New York Times in 2003 bizarrely suggested Tiger Woods boycott the Masters in solidarity with its ban on female members, activists attempted to nudge James into a similar action to draw attention to their cause.
It was James' potential Ali moment, some activists said -- a chance to make a controversial stand and step firmly into the social and political space. Rice's mother asked for LeBron's help publicizing the case. A group of organizers from Black Lives Matter created a plan to spur him into action. They started a campaign asking him to sit out games in protest of the grand jury's decision.
Keep in mind ESPN is the same media entity that fired broadcaster and baseball legend Curt Schilling for some off-the-clock conservative posts on his Facebook page (one on letting biological men use ladies’ rooms being the final straw). Then the network, apparently out of pique, disappeared the pitcher’s historic Game 6 “bloody sock” World Series victory from an edited version of one of the network's 30 for 30 documentaries. Praise for political activism only goes one way at ESPN.