MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The NBA finals begin today with the Miami Heat facing off against the San Antonio Spurs, and of course, attention is focused on Miami's star player, LeBron James, as he fights for his team to collect their third NBA title. But our next guest say there's something else to watch - his growing influence off the court. He was one of the first voices to call for the ouster of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling after Sterling's racist comments were made public. Here's LeBron James.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEBRON JAMES: We're fighting to get an owner out of our league that shouldn't be a part of our league. And no matter how long it takes, no matter how much money it cost, we need to get him out of there.
MARTIN: Now, it's been rare for a star player to get involved in politics and speak out against authority, especially players involved in a team sport. But according to sports columnist William Rhoden - he says that LeBron James is breaking that mold. And William Rhoden is with us now to tell us more about that. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us, once again.
WILLIAM RHODEN: It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, I think a lot of people might remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics giving their black power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City, for which they paid a very heavy price, by the way. It has to be said. But for the most part, you were saying in your piece that players in team sports have generally refused to get involved in racial and political issues. Why is that?
RHODEN: Lack of courage, lack of conviction, lack of critical thinking skills - in college, where most of us learn our critical thinking skills. That's sort of the irony and the problem of this - of the big-time college sports industry, where people are pretty much passed through in big-time football, big-time basketball - and they really don't really embrace the college experience. You just kind of get passed through, and they really never develop those critical thinking skills. And they're also taught, from an early age in AAU basketball and youth football, that the best way to make it through the system, particularly if you're a young black kid, is just to put the blinders on. Don't look left. Don't look right. Just go straight ahead. Stay on the conveyor belt. Be a good boy, and don't make waves, and perhaps you'll reap the fruits of your silence. And I think Michael Jordan became the signature of that approach by not making waves by promoting - making you look at him...
MARTIN: His business interests - his commercial - well, you reference this in this piece. Remember, he was asked - he's from North Carolina. He was asked to involve - get involved in the campaign where an African-American candidate was running against Jesse Helms who was running - a conservative, and - who was running a kind of a racially divisive campaign. And Jordan, famously, was said to have said...
MARTIN: ...Well, Republicans buy shoes too.
MARTIN: Did that set a certain tone for other players to say that you should focus on your commercial interests, as opposed to any kind of broader political or social interests?
RHODEN: Yeah, yeah of course, Michel. I think that had he done what Smith and Carlos did - because everybody was looking for Jordan, as they were looking to LeBron, for direction - to set the tone. And his tone was, hey, look, just take the money and run. Keep your mouth shut, and endorse those products. That was - and he set that tone, which is so interesting about LeBron, in that, I think, you know, it's a different era. It's a different age, but courage is generational. And I think LeBron realized, you know - back beginning in Cleveland when he decided, you know what, I don't - you know, I can choose where I want to play. To make his statement about Sterling he said, what are they going to do to me? I'm the guy. And telling - by extension telling players, look guys, we are the league. If there is no players there is no league. And even looking - and I'd - what I'd like to see...
MARTIN: Well, that was true - but that was true of Michael Jordan too. I mean, he was the biggest - I mean, he was the face of the league for so long.
RHODEN: Yeah, but he didn't think - he didn't think that way though.
RHODEN: Do you see what I'm saying?
MARTIN: Well, that's...
RHODEN: He chose political neutrality.
MARTIN: What I'm curious about is why you think LeBron James has taken this tack at this particular point in his career. I was wondering whether you were - saw signs of this inclination at an earlier point in his career.
RHODEN: Really, Michel, to me, the first inclination was A, doing the decision. You know, when he decided to take ESPN up on his offer and say, yeah, OK I'll roll with that. But more when he decided to leave Cleveland and exercise his right, not just as a free agent, but to choose where you want to go, and do it in alliance with other star players. Recognize that we've got the muscle, we can do this. And I think the next level is going to be - now that they've seen how these franchises are being sold for, you know, two billion dollars, they say, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait a minute. We should be able to get a portion of those proceeds, and I'm hoping that that's the next level of - I don't want to call it protest - but insight, or - well, maybe it is protest - at the next bargaining negotiation for the players to say that, wait a minute, when these franchises are sold like this, the players should get a portion of the proceeds. Not necessarily us, but it should go to the NBA Players Association for, let's say, retired players. But - so I'm looking, going forward. I'm looking for LeBron's influence to gain. That's why I'm pulling for The Heat, by the way.
MARTIN: OK, duly noted. You know, I noted in your piece that you mentioned that two years ago, James took a photo with his Heat teammates in hooded sweatshirts in an effort to bring awareness of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. And that was a moment that stuck out for some people, also because this was not an issue that was specific to basketball. I do want to mention that, you know, there are other people in other sports - I'm thinking about the NFL kicker Chris Kluwe, who believes he was not picked up by another team for another season because of his decision to speak out in support of same-sex marriage as an ally, noting that he is not a gay man himself. But he felt a responsibility, for reasons that he has made clear, to speak out in favor of this issue. I have to ask whether you think - and obviously people disagree that that was why he wasn't picked up, but he believes that to be the case. Do - is there - do you feel - is LeBron James in a different position because of his dominance in his sport, or because so far he's really kind of focused on issues that are specific to his job, which - his profession, which is basketball?
RHODEN: Well, you know, LeBron is in another universe, Michel. I mean, you know - I mean, a lot of people don't know Chris Kluwe. Everybody from China to Senegal to, you know - everybody knows LeBron James. If LeBron made the same statement about same-sex marriage, people would stop and listen. I'm not saying that they all follow, but they stop and listen. So it's not just sports specific. It's the idea that LeBron James, a person who's known universal, is taking the blinders off and is looking around his surroundings. Remember, just before the Olympics when he was going to China, people were asking him about human rights issues in China. And he actually said, you know, when I get there I'll consider, you know, I'll do my due diligence. I may say something about it. I think what happened is that the coaching staff and probably some people from the government kind of got to him and said, listen, that's not the time, you know, let's not do that. But it's on his radar. And I think that my impression of LeBron, in terms of this evolution - he's more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in terms of being headed toward being a renaissance person who's looking at things beyond, as you said, his sport or his particular circumstances. But we'll see, you know, we'll see.
MARTIN: A final question. LeBron famously went to - started playing professional sports right after high school, so one of the - that kind of loops back to the beginning of our conversation as - you know, your argument about why a number of these players have not been more outspoken in the past is that they are actually lightly educated, the fact - despite the fact that many of them actually did attend college. But you're saying that they really didn't absorb the college experience. Do you - does LeBron James have anyone advising him or helping him shake his thinking in some of these areas?
MARTIN: Very briefly, if you would.
RHODEN: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that not going through that educational system probably helped him. And he's got a team. He's got an independent team of people - some people he grew up with. He didn't go the traditional route of the huge agents and the huge law firm. So from the very beginning of his career, he set the tone. I'm going to be an independent, an independent thinker and an independent athlete.
MARTIN: William C. Rhoden is a sports columnist for The New York Times. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. We've been talking about his piece, titled "NBA's On-Court Leader Embraces Off-Court Mantle Without Fear." Bill Rhoden, thanks so much for speaking with us.
RHODEN: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.