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Don’t Shut Up and Dribble: While We’re Waiting…

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Happy Thursday, readers. What’s going on in the Cleveland sports world? The Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez continue to be the most exciting thing in baseball, the Cleveland Browns are practicing and f-bombing their way through Hard Knocks as fans hunt HBO GO passwords, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are fully dormant until camp. No championships this week, but while we’re waiting.

Last week, recently-departed-Cleveland-Cavalier-but-enduring-local-folk-hero LeBron James opened his I Promise school in Akron, Ohio, in conjunction with Akron public schools and the LeBron James Family Foundation. While it is a public school not funded exclusively by James, James and his Foundation have committed a monumental financial investment, and have helped design a school giving at-risk students the best chance to succeed. Among other things, the school will provide students with meals, uniforms, bicycles, guaranteed college scholarships for graduates, and an extended school day and calendar complete with a certified STEM education.

James is not the first athlete to perform an act of philanthropy, to do something community-oriented, to take a powerful social stance, or even open a school. (Jalen Rose helped found the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit, Michigan, among others I’m sure.) But James’ grand gesture is unique in a variety of ways. James may be the most prominent non-soccer athlete in the world, has a platform capable of reaching more human beings than nearly anyone ever, and helped open a public school in his home community of Northeast Ohio at what appears to be a historical inflection point in this country.

James’ opening of the school made an impact on me. Besides clean drinking water, roads, electricity, food, and shelter, I find public education to be the most important thing a civilized society can offer an individual. It’s essential to a fully functioning democracy, necessary for the maintenance of a technologically modern society, and imperative for young people to have a chance to fashion lives of their own choosing. Knowledge is power, and education is the attainment of knowledge. I was fortunate to attend an excellent public high school in Northeast Ohio, and the education afforded me has given me tremendous opportunities for personal fulfillment. I was lucky, and it devastates me that many children and young men and women have their possibilities for happiness diminished by a lack of support for their education.

For those reasons, I was moved by James’ gesture. But it also revived something that happened at the beginning of the year — something I largely ignored at the time, but feel compelled to revisit in light of the opening of James’ school, further attacks on his intelligence, and parlaying of the event into a docuseries. It was offensive when it happened, but it was nonetheless something I hoped would be obliterated by the firehose of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle — yet another piece of dogmatic refuse destined for the Great Pacific garbage patch of reason. But James’ opening of the I Promise school reminded me that the event, its mark, and the prevailing attitudes it represents still remain — it won’t decay, it won’t magically evaporate, and no one else is going to dunk it in the trash can like Giannis over Tim Hardaway Jr. It’s a piece of ideological styrofoam that needs to be disposed of.

In January, James appeared in an UNINTERRUPTED video implying that the president of the United States “doesn’t understand the people” and — inelegantly, I’ll concede — “really don’t give a f*ck about the people.” Afterward, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham disparaged James on her television show. Ingraham’s main thesis was that LeBron James and Kevin Durant — who appeared in the video with James — lack the intellect to speak on such matters, a stance summed up by opening the segment with the announcement, “This is a jumb dock [sic] alert.”

Ingraham called James’ opinion “barely intelligible” — which was false — and “ungrammatical” — which was true but only if you have a non-dialectal understanding of language. Soon after saying, “Must they run their mouths like that,” and not long before mocking Kevin Durant’s grammar following a commercial break, Ingraham concluded thusly:

“This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA.1 And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.2 … So keep the political commentary to yourself, or, as someone once said,3 ‘Shut up and dribble.’”

James’ actual intellect or suggested lack thereof should not make Ingraham’s comments, disposition, or general attitude any more or less defensible. “The world’s biggest fool can say the sun is shining, but that doesn’t make it dark out.”4

But it’s still worth pointing out that James is a savant it at least one regard, and probably several. James can effortlessly recall from rote memory a sequence of possessions in a basketball game with 100s of them. He’s one of the most cerebral athletes of his generation, is able to manipulate players on the basketball court with his mind like pieces of a chessboard, can dominate a physical contest often by barely moving, and can viciously shred a defense purely with basketball acumen.

When it comes to basketball, LeBron James is — in a word — a genius.5 James has also demonstrated proficiency in business, production, and even acting. As Waiting for Next Year’s Scott Sargent reported for Bleacher Report, “James can list off the names of the streets he had to walk to get to school as a fourth-grader.”

Even if James wasn’t extraordinarily bright, there’s a strong argument to be made that a thoughtful athlete is more apt to be honest and forthright on a political issue than the host of a cable news talk show, a place that’s cynical and craven even by sports’ standards, and where the goal is — best I can tell — to chase ratings by sewing discontent and dumping gasoline on the raging bonfire of public discourse. Being a reasonable person is terrible television — we in the sports world know this better than anyone.

In the political and social realms, James’ comments are almost always deliberate, thoughtful, and reasonable. Maybe his comments in the UNINTERRUPTED episode were less tactful than is ideal, but it was a rare lapse in that regard, and it doesn’t mean he was wrong. His comments are almost always imbued with empathy and compassion. James’ political and social remarks carry themes of hope, equality, and community.

Last week, James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols “By using my voice and letting the youth know and the people that need the guidance know that I care for them and that I’ll be their voice, it’s passionate for me because, like I said: Sports is just the ultimate to bring people together. That’s what I’m here for.” Recent exigencies and external forces have made James wade into that pool more and more often as individuals and public figures continue to insult his intelligence and “try to divide us by using our platform of sport.” They took the fight to athletes, then villainized athletes for fighting back.

James’ role in helping open a school — even if it was primarily symbolic (which it wasn’t) — was profound. But beyond that, it reinvigorated and gave new life to the thoughts stirred up by Ingraham’s comments and accordant attitudes. The unveiling of the I Promise school added another dimension to the impropriety — and a failure to atone by recognizing James’ act served as further proof that Ingraham and the people with whom she associates aren’t interested in doing right or even helping people.

The message was clear: a man like LeBron James is not permitted to speak his mind on important social issues. Shut up and dribble. Don’t speak. Don’t act. Don’t think. Just do what we tell you to do.

It also lays bare the rhetorical tricks Ingraham and others use to nullify opinions that deviate from their own. “Shut up and dribble.” The message is so blatant that it lacks the guile to deserve being called subtext. It’s crass, crude, bare. Don’t say anything, LeBron James, because your opinion is undeserving regardless of its conceptual origin or reason. The message was clear: a man like LeBron James is not permitted to speak his mind on important social issues. Shut up and dribble. Don’t speak. Don’t act. Don’t think. Just do what we tell you to do.

It would be genius if it wasn’t so nakedly fallacious. It’s a ruse, and a dishonest attempt to distract from the real issues. The tactic is used to evade any examination or introspection by ignoring what was said altogether. When you can’t attack the substance of the speech, just attack the speaker. And when you can’t attack the speaker, attack the speaker’s right to speak. It earns cheap cheers. But it’s hack. It’s ad hominem. It’s lazy and vile.

The same thing is written all over the NFL’s “stand for the national anthem” debate. Did Colin Kaepernick have some good points about social inequities, law enforcement, or the criminal justice system? Who cares, he should shut up and stand for our song. And it’s all great for the NFL. The league and the likes of Jerry Jones are able to score easy pandering points, and as long as people are talking about sitting and standing for a pep rally, they aren’t talking about concussions, brain damage, and rapidly accelerated disability. It’s a flea flicker for disguising gross negligence.

But it’s the same strategy at work in both cases. James is an athlete and should shut up and play basketball because Laura Ingraham tells him to. Colin Kaepernick should shut up and stand for the national anthem because the owners tell him to. Don’t think. Just do. It’s like a parent arguing with a child. But these aren’t children and they aren’t trying to eat ice cream for breakfast — they’re grown men participating in democracy. These tactics are spectacular mental gymnastics to avoid evaluating anything said on its merits. Denying the individual’s liberty to invalidate what was said altogether. They’re just going further upstream to poison the discourse, before the stream of thought becomes a river they can’t dam (or damn) with bad ideas.

The enemy of “stand for the anthem” and “shut up and dribble” and “stick to sports” is not the content of the actors’ thoughts — but the idea of independent thought altogether.

These are attempts to disenfranchise: to deprive citizens of this country from their right to speak under the law. While it’s not illegal or against the law for a TV personality to tell someone, “Shut up and dribble,” — the First Amendment only protects people from actions by the government — it is still an attempt to negate one’s lawful right to speak, and thus an attempt to disenfranchise. Only the state has the power to enforce the law, but ordinary citizens can still suppress rights protected under the law. For many periods in history, suppression by the state was common. In many others, vigilante disenfranchisement succeeded too. Put Ingraham’s comments about James and attitudes about mandatory flag-standing in their proper historical context, and they’re worse than condescending. This is the continuing of a rich tradition.

Would I be openly standing up for athletes who said things I outright disagreed with? I’ll concede that I wouldn’t. But I also wouldn’t deny their right to speak, insult their intelligence, or degrade their humanity. The thought that James isn’t smart enough to speak on social or political issues is laughable, especially when we’ve put the bar on requisite expertise for our civic leaders so, so low — with great thanks to cable news and shows like Ingraham’s.

LeBron James helped build a public school to give underprivileged children a better chance of succeeding. Even if the school “fails” — which is inconceivable for it to do so in all respects — James has shouldered a disproportionate burden of his civic responsibility. Many other “dumb jocks”6 — including Chris Long and Malcolm Jenkins — have already done more to foster positive social change and bolster our failing institutions than many of their detractors ever will.

All this from a kid from Akron, Ohio, who missed 83 days of school in the fourth grade. LeBron James had every opportunity to fail and still, improbably, succeeded. Now he’s giving hundreds of children the opportunities and support he never had. If he succeeds, he will transform hundreds of lives and possibly an entire community. James is Northeast Ohio’s ambassador to the rest world, and I’m proud to be represented by him. James built a school, and I hope he inspires many other athletes to do the same or similar. Thankfully, James decided not to shut up and dribble, and our community is richer for it.

The Calvin and Hobbes Strip of the Day. Putting the glitz and sheen of HBO production over the Cleveland Browns is like putting Cool Whip on a tin of Cesar gourmet dog food. [Runs finger through top, slurps Cool Whip off finger with ironic flourish.] “Mmm, that’s good publicity!”

And now for the random 90s song of the day. Who am I kidding, the Random 90s Song of the Day is nothing more than a glorified advertisement for the Singles soundtrack. But who cares. [switching to Stefon voice] Me as Stefon: Because this video for Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” has everyyyyyything: White guys with earrings, fires, grodeos. … Seth Meyers: What’s a grodeo? Me as Stefon: It’s when fat guys in grunge bands with goatees roll in the dirt while playing guitar at an abandoned rodeo.

Did you hear the distant cry?
Calling me back to my sins
Like the ones you knew before
Calling me back once again

I nearly
I nearly lost you there

  1. LeBron James graduated high school. []
  2. LeBron James’ contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers paid him $33 million in salary. []
  3. I don’t know who was supposed to have said this. []
  4. From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, HarperTouch 2006, page 292. []
  5. As is Kevin Durant, for that matter. []
  6. Or “jumb docks” if I want to faithfully quote Ingraham. []