Analysis

LeBron James’ Fall Illustrates Perils Of Performative Activism

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Michael Ginsberg General Assignment Reporter
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NBA superstar LeBron James has seen his image take a nosedive in recent years.

Once the hometown hero who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their only championship, LeBron was recently named the most hated NBA player in 24 states, according to data tracked by Sports Insider. His fall follows his and the NBA’s increased activism, which has harmed the league’s ratings and angered fans.

The NBA’s ratings have dropped nearly 50% over the past decade, and some fans are calling out the league’s involvement in political issues. A Yahoo/YouGov poll from March found that 34.5% of respondents said they watched sports less due to political messaging, with 53% of Republican respondents reporting the same. In addition, 37.6% of male respondents claimed to watch sports less due to political messaging. Yahoo/YouGov polled 1,606 adults and had a margin of error of 2.7%.

Ethan Strauss, a reporter at The Athletic, believes that the 2019 China incident played a key role in the NBA’s ratings collapse. Strauss described the fallout from Daryl Morey’s “Free Hong Kong” tweet as “an absolute free fall where you’re losing double digits on the … ratings.”

LeBron said that Morey’s commentary on Hong Kong was not “educated on the situation at hand. He also reportedly demanded that Morey be punished by the NBA for his stance.

“You know damn well if a player made the same statements and caused such poor ramifications for the league, there would be some sort of league recourse,” James said, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. (RELATED: China Wanted Daryl Morey Fired, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Said ‘There’s No Chance’ He Would Be Disciplined)

LeBron went on to claim that while “we all do have freedom of speech … at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.” (RELATED: Shaquille O’Neal Defends Daryl Morey And Free Speech)

Conservatives slammed LeBron and Commissioner Adam Silver for their handling of the situation.

“You described the  [Morey] incident as ‘a bump in the road’ in the NBA’s relationship with the Chinese government,” Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley wrote in a letter to Silver.

“You went on to say that you understand that the CCP has ‘a different view of … how things should be done,’ and that you hope the NBA and the CCP will be able to ‘find mutual respect for each other.”

Hawley went on to slam Silver’s statement as “offensive nonsense.”

ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski then responded “Fuck you” to Hawley. After Wojnarowski was suspended for his comments, LeBron tweeted, “#FreeWOJ.”

James’ support for Wojnarowski and opposition to Hawley was not the first time the Lakers small forward publicly opposed a Republican senator.

Less than a week before the 2018 midterm elections, LeBron wore a “Beto for Senate” hat to a Lakers game against the San Antonio Spurs. Despite having never lived in Texas, LeBron publicly supported the then-Rep. against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. He described O’Rourke as “thoughtful” and “candid” in one tweet.

James and Cruz tangled again when the four-time MVP tweeted out the photograph of a police officer who shot and killed a knife-wielding assailant with the caption, “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.”

Twitter refused to evaluate whether or not LeBron’s tweet violated its rules against targeted harassment because he deleted it, a spokesman told the Daily Caller News Foundation at the time.

Cruz slammed the tweet, and said it was part of a broader “pattern where the left consistently goes after, attacks and demonizes police officers; and they do so often before the facts are known, often before there is any evidence of what happened.”

James was also one of the leaders of the “take a knee” movement, in which athletes knelt for the national anthem to promote Black Lives Matter.

“I want to always speak out against things that I feel like are unjust. I always want to be educated on things and go about it that way,” he said.

Fans should expect James to keep sharing his political thoughts.

“I understand critics who say that they turn to sports to avoid controversy. But it’s unavoidable at this moment in time in our country,” Silver told Sports Illustrated in August 2020.

“These are not simple times. Our players are not one-dimensional people, and they can both be deeply concerned about issues that our country faces and at the same time perform their craft at the highest level.”