LeBron and Zlatan: “King” vs. “God”

For the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has been ingrained into the sports world. While the organization/movement doesn’t have the full backing of the country, there is overwhelming evidence that minorities, in particular African Americans, face a much tougher reality in the USA than fellow white Americans. Whether it be police brutality, racial profiling, economic inequality, or voter suppression, there are serious issues affecting African Americans that need awareness. Many athletes have done so, taking a stand against racism by exercising their first amendment rights to protest and speak out against injustice.

However, there is still an abundance of criticism towards the sports figures who choose to speak out. There are those who criticize the activism as too performative, as not all the athletes put their money where their mouth is. Others simply deny systemic racism and refuse to acknowledge the serious issues facing marginalized groups. However, the vast majority of critics broadcast the message: “keep politics out of sports,” saying they watch sports to appreciate the beautiful game and not the external messages.

One of such critics of the latter reason is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who expressed his frustration with LeBron James in a recent interview. The 39-year-old self proclaimed god, who currently plays for AC Milan, said “…I don’t like when people, when they have some kind of status, and they do politics at the same time [as] what they are doing. I mean, do what you’re good at.” He referenced LeBron before the quote, praising his work on the court but expressing his discontent with James’s outspoken rhetoric.

Zlatan played 2 years in LA for the Galaxy, scoring 52 goals in 56 games

After a win on Friday over the Portland Trail Blazers, LeBron James responded, saying “…there’s no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand how this platform and how powerful my voice is,” and “…I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that may be going on, not only in my community, but around this country and around the world.” Many prominent American sports figures have come out in support of LeBron, but the entire issue reinvigorates a discussion of expression in sports.

There is no doubt that top athletes such as LeBron and Zlatan have a huge platform that should be used to spread positivity and awareness to issues. While LeBron has been very critical of political figures in the past, especially former president Donald Trump, the majority of his “political” remarks are against racism/racist incidents. 

James has done plenty of work with his time and money to help marginalized groups, most notably with his “I Promise School,” a public elementary school created to help struggling students in Akron, Ohio; it also provides affordable housing, meal programs, and job training. In addition, LeBron leads the More Than a Vote initiative alongside dozens of athletes, an organization that helps combat voter suppression.

LeBron James puts in hard work both on and off the court

There is nothing political about protesting the unjust killing of African Americans or fighting to end voter suppression, two issues James has been outspoken on. Even if you disagree, LeBron’s status as a superstar athlete should have nothing to do with his ability to make remarks on such a situation. LeBron claims to educate himself on the issues he speaks out on, and he has been personally affected by some of them as well. 

James also called out the hypocrisy of Zlatan’s comments, as the Swede spoke out against racism in a similar fashion in 2018. Ibrahimovic expressed his frustrations with “undercover racism,” feeling that because his last name is Bosnian and unlike common Swedish surnames ending in -son, he is under more scrutiny from the Swedish media. On the surface, expressing personal frustration isn’t quite the same as calling out issues, but the labeling of “undercover racism” and calling out of a broader social issue rings similar to that of LeBron’s work.

In the end, there is no doubt that LeBron James has made a positive impact on society through his initiatives and through his words. Whether or not you want to chalk his activism up as “political” is up to you, but it is clear the 4-time NBA Champion cares about helping others. Zlatan’s words may be reflective of a different culture in Europe, but he is in no place to call out LeBron for using his platform, especially given Zlatan’s similar use of it in the past.