No, LeBron James Should Not Just ‘Shut Up and Dribble’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of those right-wing cable TV talking heads blasted LeBron James as "ignorant" for his criticism of Donald Trump, admonishing him to "shut up and dribble."

The Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors NBA finals start Thursday, and I look forward to watching James dribble, shoot, pass, rebound, block shots and, if he feels compelled, speak out.

He just might be the greatest basketball player ever. He's also impressive off the court. In the spotlight since he was a junior in high school, he has been a near model citizen, never getting in trouble and giving back tremendously to the community. He's intelligent and has a right to voice his views, including heartfelt criticism of Trump.

In fact all athletes have every right to use their fame to speak out on broader matters — as do entertainers, evangelical preachers, business people, TV talk show hosts and even columnists. No one has to agree or even listen.

Some prominent athletes have eschewed controversial stands. Michael Jordan is reported to have cracked that "Republicans buy sneakers too." But there is a long tradition of speaking out. Think of Muhammad Ali during the Vietnam War and Jackie Robinson in the Jim Crow era. Robinson, by the way, was a Republican.

Today as well, a number of sports figures support Republicans, particularly owners or coaches. The head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs will appear in support of the Republican governor of Kansas next week. I am contemptuous of the former basketball coach Bobby Knight and his crude bullying, but Trump valued his embrace in 2016.

I know and like Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame basketball coach who also endorsed Trump. Less explicable is how Digger squares this with his reverence for the late president of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, a passionate champion of civil and human rights — the personification of anti-Trump.

African-Americans have increasingly spoken out against Trump, who has deliberately fanned racial tensions more than any president since Woodrow Wilson a century ago. After the violence in Charlottesville last summer, the president equated civil rights demonstrators and white nationalists ("some very fine people on both sides"). He suggested pro football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice should be kicked out of the country. About 70 percent of National Football League players are African-Americans.

LeBron James has said that growing up as a poor kid with a single mother, he looked to three roles for inspiration: the president, whoever was best in sports and the greatest musician at that time. "You never thought you could be them," he said, "but you could gain inspiration from them." That's one reason Trump troubles him so much. James has spoken out and financially contributed to causes dealing with social justice and African-American history, including endowing the Muhammed Ali exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

This is a rich sports guy who walks the walk, a major philanthropic figure in northeast Ohio and his native Akron. He bought uniforms for his high school football team, went to their pep rallies, started a reading program for elementary school kids and is a big supporter of the Boys & Girls Club.

James, who never attended college, provides more than $40 million of scholarships for others to attend the University of Akron, home of the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education. Last year pro basketball writers gave him the citizenship award as the player who has given the most to the community. He almost always finds time to sign autographs and especially reaches out to the military.

Bottom line: He's one of America's most admirable public figures.

On the basketball finals, many experts and odds-makers say it's Golden State in a sweep. I think it'll be more competitive and exciting; never count out a team with LeBron on the court.

For those ideologically inclined fans, and for Donald Trump, this series may be the way they would see the Battle of Stalingrad: They want both sides to lose. When the Warriors won the title last year, star players Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry said, because of Trump, they had no interest in the traditional White House visit to celebrate their NBA championship.

The Warriors coach Steve Kerr also incurred the president's displeasure when he called Trump's travel ban a "horrible" idea: "If we're trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, by really going against what supposedly our country's about and creating fear, it's the wrong way to go about it."

The coach does not differ from Trump in his concern about terrorism. In fact Kerr's father was assassinated by Islamic terrorists. But this leader in sports, like so many others, disagrees with the president about fundamental American values — and exercises his American right to say so.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.