LeBron James has roughly as many Twitter followers as the president of the United States. That, as we found out this weekend, gives the basketball superstar a very real kind of political and cultural power.
James used that power on Saturday, just hours after Trump attacked NBA superstar Steph Curry for declining an invitation to the White House and, for good measure, said Curry’s entire championship-winning team wasn’t welcome.
It didn’t take James long to respond. "U bum," he called Trump on Twitter.
“@StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite, James continued. “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
In the same busy weekend, Trump called for the firing of protesting football players who decline to stand for the national anthem.
As the New York Times noted, today's superstar athletes have vast followings on social media, allowing them to bypass their team owners, PR departments, and the news media. James has 38.5 million followers on Twitter and 32.8 million more on Instagram. Curry has 10.5 million on Twitter and 17.6 million more on Instagram. Trump has 39.3 million followers on Twitter and 7.5 million more on Instagram.
That, the paper said, made today’s athletes "unlike sports heroes of the past.”
The Times should have said that made modern athletes different from most sports heroes of the past. In this area, as in so many others, Muhammad Ali was an exception.
The now-late comedian and political activist Dick Gregory was one of the first people I interviewed for my new biography of the boxer, Ali: A Life, and he was the one who first pointed out to me how Ali circumvented the media to be heard at a time when black people risked their careers and their lives by speaking out on issues like segregation.
Ali, Gregory said, could punch a white man in the face for 15 rounds on live TV and there was nothing the media could do about it. His fights were carried live, so Ali could — and often did — thank Allah and Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and there was nothing the media could do about it. Ali could call himself the greatest at a time when many Americans considered him inherently inferior because of his race, and there was nothing the media could do about it. He could call out the folly of the war in Vietnam, and there was nothing the media could do about it.
When Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X spoke in those days, Gregory said, white reporters and white editors decided how much they would be heard. But those people could not control Ali. When we spoke in 2015, Gregory's face lit up as if he were back in 1964 and watching it all happen again.
"This motherfucker," Gregory said, "would be in your fucking face as many rounds as the fight last. King never got that kind of time. You watch him beat a white boy to the ground and there ain't a damn thing you can do about it. This never happened before. Never, ever happened in the history of the planet. Ali was everything everybody wanted their child to be, except some ignorant-ass white folks, and they don't count."
To see if Gregory was right I conducted an unscientific test. I counted the number of times Ali appeared in the New York Times in 1964 and compared that with the number of times Martin Luther King and other prominent black Americans appeared.
Gregory was mostly right. Final score: Elijah Muhammad, 31; Malcolm X, 100, Ali, 203; King, 230.
Black athletes haven’t been this political in decades. The change is way overdue.
Now social media gives more athletes the ability to be like Ali, to speak up to power. For a long time, many athletes were too worried about making money to flex these muscles off the field or the court and risk losing endorsements. Michael Jordan, for example, will never live down his comment about why he stayed out of politics. The reason, he reportedly said, was that Republicans bought Nikes same as Democrats. In 1990, he also pointedly refused to campaign for North Carolina Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who was black, when he ran against incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, who had a dismal record on race.
Compare that to James, who campaigned actively for Hillary Clinton, or to Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army, or to football player Brandon Marshall, who has spoken out about mental illness.
Trump’s current war with the NFL athletes who are kneeling during the national anthem is leading growing numbers of athletes to make the kind of explicitly political comments that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
Many of those NFL players are acting in solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kicked off the current firestorm last year, when he sat out the national anthem to protest the continued police killings of unarmed black men. Kaepernick hasn’t been able to find a job in the NFL since, even though he’s statistically as good as, or better than, many current quarterbacks. (Trump, characteristically, has claimed credit, telling a crowd in March that NFL owners hadn’t signed Kaepernick because “They don't want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.”)
It's great to see James, Curry, Kaepernick, and so many others following Ali's example. It's also great to see Jordan’s recent donations to the NAACP.
They're saying their power is their own and not contingent on any team owner. They're recognizing, as Ali did, that they're free to say what they want. After all, what's the point in having millions of followers if you don't even try to lead them?
Dick Gregory would be pleased, I know. We all should be.
Democracy, like any sporting event, is best when it is fiercely contested.
Jonathan Eig is the author of the new book Ali: A Life.