Sunday, June 10, 2007

Don't try and put yourself in LeBron's shoes, they're too big

An underreported story in America, but a major crisis nonetheless, the genocide and humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan has really gotten to Cleveland's Ira Newble.

For those unaware, here's the short version of what's happening in Darfur. The Sudanese government funds a militia group called the Janjaweed that has caused somewhere between 200,000 and 450,000 deaths in response to prior rebellions by insurgents who sought autonomy from their non-representative government. The Chinese and Russian governments have given money and military supplies to the Sundanese government, which in turn goes toward oppressing and killing more people. China buys 2/3 of Sudan's oil, and thus are fully vested in maintaining that relationship at a cutthroat cost. Bottom line? It's a bad situation that isn't getting any better. The Wikipedia article on it is pretty accurate and explains it in a lot more detail than I will here.

Back to Ira Newble. The Cavs journeyman, who has played 8 minutes thus far in this year's playoff run, read up on the Darfur situation and got motivated. After gathering information and communicating with a professor/activist on the issue, Newble decided it was time to do something about it. So, Newble drafted an open letter to the Chinese government urging the Chinese government to use its power to end the suffering in Darfur before it hosts the Summer Olympics in 2008. Then, he sought all of his teammates to sign the letter as a showing of support in an effort to increase awareness along with trying to influence the Chinese government. Everyone signed...except for two players. LeBron James and reserve guard Damon Jones both declined.

LeBron signed a $90 million deal with Nike of which he still benefits. Jones recently signed a shoe contract with Li Ning, the leading Chinese sports manufacturer.

With Nike having a huge vested interest in China and Jones' sponsor also obviously having large stakes there, the reason for their refusal to sign the letter is pretty obvious. LeBron said he didn't want to sign because, "it's basically not having enough information" and Jones simply refused comment about the issue.

Now, writers around the country are jumping on their high horses (1, 2, 3, plus many more) to denounce James for putting his financial interests ahead of an opportunity to show support and raise awareness of an underreported issue. Many are shaming him for refusing to use his platform as a potential soapbox. Newble has even voiced a bit of displeasure about LeBron's refusal, but admits that LeBron needs more time to educate himself about the issue before he were to represent himself like that. Never mind the fact that he's been in the middle of leading an awful basketball team (and a terrible coach) to the Finals for the first time in his career, almost all by himself. Also, let's throw aside the fact that his long-time girlfriend is going to give birth to his second child any day now. The man likely hasn't had time to keep up on the local weather, much less on international conflicts.

I applaud Newble for his efforts, and it would be great if it catches on. Writers should be focusing more on lauding Newble than denouncing James.

Personally, I refuse to denounce or laud LeBron's decision to wait or refuse signing altogether, if that is what he ultimately decides. All the writers out there that are piling on him for not risking his and his employer's (Nike) money for a cause really need to check themselves. It's very easy to denounce someone successful or famous for not risking/spending their money when the denouncer isn't risking anything themselves. And, to a degree, it goes similarly for Newble. Making around $3.2 million a year, and little else from endorsements, Newble's risk is much lower than what LeBron would be laying on the line by signing a letter calling out the Chinese government.

In fact, this is indicative of a larger issue that I'll write about sometime in the future: it's very easy to criticize someone's decision when it's impossible to put yourself in their shoes.

The situation in Darfur needs exposure, but the point no one is making in the reporting of all this is that LeBron's choice to wait on making a deicision about the letter is giving more publicity to the issue than it likely would have gotten if LeBron would have joined a list of NBA players led by Ira Newble. Either way, it's his decision to champion the causes he wants to. It's not like he's some kind of greedy scrooge who doesn't help out with the community.

So, I will withhold my judgement of LeBron. Until I have a nine-figure paycheck staring me in the face, I'll never pretend to know. I won't hold my breath waiting for that one.

Reasonably yours,

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1 comment:

Kenneth said...

Like it or not, athletes are role models. I think LeBron could have served himself well by signing on. In all seriousness, would Nike really drop him for signing it? Is this letter really going to cause the Chinese government to think long and hard about the issue? I do not think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the answer to both is "no". Now if Nike, as a corporation, signed the letter…we may have something there.

I agree 100% that it is amazingly unfortunate that the press has been negative towards two players and has ignored the positive things that Newble and every other player who signed it are doing. At the same time, each and every player on that team is decked out head to toe in gear that has been made through the manipulation of the poor in China, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Maybe a more relevant campaign for basketball players (or athletes for that matter) would be against third-world labor violations since most of the companies that give out these huge endorsement deals are guilty of taking full advantage of an inhumanely cheap labor force.

LeBron has publicly stated that his main goal is to become the world's first billionaire athlete and, to him, signing this letter may seem like it would get in the way of his dreams. To do that he may have to be the ultimate corporate yes man until he reaches that 10th figure in income. At the same time, he has likened himself to wanting to be a global icon a la Muhammad Ali, you can not tell me that Ali would not have spoken up…I would argue that Ali’s outspokenness had just as much to do with his icon status as his boxing.

At the least, LeBron should realize that he could push Nike around a bit if he wants to. If worse comes to worse, there are several shoe makers that would love to have LeBron as their spokesman, there are not several LeBrons for Nike to chose from. He has the advantage over Nike on this based on the fact that the "supply" of LeBron is much less than the "supply" of basketball shoe companies.

It’s a tough question with no clear cut easy answer. I would have loved to see each and every NBA player sign that thing but, at the same time, do NBA players (probably not the smartest folks in the world) need to be political spokesmen? Celebrities are given essentially a huge microphone to speak to the world through, I admire those who try and use that microphone to achieve a greater good and hope that LeBron does the same one-day. He does not have to speak up about every issue under the Sun but it would be great to see him, at one point in his career, find an issue he wants to tackle head on (like Ira Newble did).

***On a side note, I believe the numbers for Darfur are more around 1.2 million dead, 2 displaced, and about 200,000 of those have died in refugee camps due to starvation, disease, etc. China seems to be trying to do to Africa what the Westerners did to the Chinese; nobody wants to provide their own (manual) labor force.