It was quintessential LeBron James taking control of the chaotic boycott created by the Milwaukee Bucks’ players and threatening to take his ball and go home to pressure the NBA to do more to support racial justice.
To begin with, I find it impossible to believe LeBron James really wanted to cancel the playoffs despite how angry and disappointed he may have been with the lack of progress and support for the Black Live Matter movement. Remember LeBron’s first comment after the Milwaukee players announced their decision to boycott their game with Orlando was an Instagram post reminding everyone the playoffs were “BOYCOTTED NOT POSTPONED.”
No disrespect to his commitment to Black Lives Matter as we all know how hard LeBron has fought for justice, education, and opportunity for the black community but he’s also on a mission to win his fourth NBA championship. As Kevin Ding reported, LeBron’s mission has always been two-fold: “Play the game at a high level. Bring a championship back to L.A., hopefully. And continue to push the envelope on creating change for my people.”
These are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact, they’re synchronized goals that are best accomplished synergistically. The more successful LeBron is as a pro basketball player, the more power he has to lobby for social change. LeBron’s also smart enough to understand the source of his social power is his standing as one of the greatest players in league history and the NBA playoffs are his best platform and opportunity to wield that power.
The behind-the-scenes reporting is LeBron and players from other NBA teams were blindsided and infuriated by the decision of the Bucks’ players because they acted alone, without notice to, or in concert with other teams. LeBron’s informal vote to cancel the playoffs and decision to walk out of the meeting was to send a message to players who didn’t understand the stakes and pressure the NBA for more support in the fight against racial injustice.
The media reports about how the ensuing meetings and discussions were able to convince LeBron to change his stance and support continuing the playoffs are laughable and naïve and insult his social savvy and intelligence. More than any superstar in sports, LeBron understands how to use his platform as the face of the NBA to lobby for and force social change. LeBron was playing chess while the rest of the players were playing checkers.
The morning after LeBron walked out, the players had a meeting and came to a unanimous decision to move forward with the playoffs. That evening they discussed their decision on a group team call with the league owners. Per Taylor Rooks: “Lebron was the last player to speak on the call and delivered a strong, thoughtful message to the owners that the work has to continue, and the owners have to truly dedicate to advancing this cause.”
Why LeBron grabbed the mike at the end of that meeting was to remind the NBA the viability of the playoffs depends on his and the Lakers participation and the league needs to step up to the plate and do more for racial justice. From Taylor Rooks this morning: “The NBA and NBPA took major steps toward tangible change and social justice. That is the most important part of these two days. Progression and the advancement of equality.”
This morning, the NBA and NBPA announced three new measures designed to support social justice and racial equality: (1) A social justice coalition to promote access to voting, civic engagement, and meaningful police and criminal justice reform. (2) A commitment to work to convert NBA arenas and facilities into safe in-person voting locations. (3) An program with NBA partners to provide advertising spots during each game to promote voting.
It’s not a coincidence the new measures announced by the NBA align with goals of the Voting Rights Group LeBron James and other black athletes and entertainers created to protect and promote African-American voting rights. LeBron James, Chris Paul, and players pushing for social change know legitimate progress on racial justice, education, and opportunity issues is totally dependent on black Americans voting in the November election.
LeBron is now taking flack from Stephen A. Smith and some of the younger players for acting like he was a king and taking over the boycott to push his agenda but that’s what great leaders do when chaos offers opportunity.