Bloomberg Opinion — LeBron James has always wanted to be the NBA’s GOAT both on the court and off it. In both categories — as a player and as a savvy marketer and steward of his own brand — his only real competition is Michael Jordan.
There is, however, one major difference. In his heyday, Jordan scrupulously avoided politics. As he memorably said in 1990, when asked if he would endorse a Black Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
By contrast, James is the model of the modern athlete — lending his name to marketing campaigns (for, among other things, pizza, headphones and video games) and making personal statements on various political and cultural issues. Over the last few years, James has supported Black Lives Matter, squabbled with former President Donald Trump and Fox News anchors, and promoted voter registration.
Which is why James’s position on Covid vaccination has been as confounding as it is hypocritical. James announced this week that, yes, he’s vaccinated. It was a contrast from five months ago, when he dodged the question, saying his status was a private issue between him and his family.
James’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, has vowed to be 100% vaccinated by the first game of the season on Oct. 19, while the league itself has a 90% vaccination rate. But those 10% are a vocal and visible minority — whose rationales include pleas for more time to conduct “research” on the vaccines. Their stance is cynically exploited by politicians who care little about the vaccine itself but agree with the players’ union’s rejection of a league-imposed mandate.
Many of the comments of the NBA’s vax skeptics can be dismissed as ignorance. James, however, is and should be held to a higher standard. Not only has he shown himself to be a cogent spokesman, but he has long championed the need to speak up for social justice and to be an inspiration for younger people — even as many of his peers stayed silent.
And what is the issue of the moment? Covid, which in its early stages was significantly more deadly in the Black community. Despite that fact, and though the racial vaccination gap is closing, African Americans still have the lowest vaccination rate in nearly every state.
Nonetheless, not only are there no James-led vaccination drives, he also demurs on criticizing his fellow players. “We’re talking about individual bodies,” he said this week. “We’re not talking about something political or racism or police brutality. We’re talking about people’s bodies and well-being. I don’t think I personally should get involved in what other people should do for their bodies and livelihoods.”
Where has James been for the last two years? Has he not noticed that the pandemic became politicized? Does he think that the aforementioned higher Covid death rate and lower vaccination rate among African-Americans are unconnected to historical racism?
Quite the opposite. Black Americans have been victimized by medical treatment that is both poor and unethical. That combination has created a legitimate wariness that James could address.
What makes James’s stance especially puzzling is that, unlike last spring, he is now vaccinated. Why suddenly become reticent about a critical issue facing the Black community? James’s stance stands in contrast to the clear statements in support of vaccination from retired NBA Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.
James’s legacy on the court is all but secure: If he is not the GOAT, he is one of a handful in contention for the title. Now he has the chance to use one of the largest media platforms on the planet to address a critical issue with life-or-death consequences, particularly in his community. If he declines to speak out, then that will be a kind of legacy as well.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.