LeBron's War of Words with Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- LeBron Needs to Put Down the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Read the New Yorker.

LeBron's War of Words with Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- LeBron Needs to Put Down the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Read the New Yorker.
Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP

There is much to unpack in that headline — and I’m not sure I can give all these subjects the justice they warrant in this one story.  But let’s first lay down some markers.

I’m a Michael guy — of the generation that watched Michael Jordan change basketball.  I appreciate LeBron, but he came along after my interest in basketball shifted to the college game and away from the NBA.  My view of LeBron has generally been “If you’re bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else, you should be better.  Now guard Shaq.”

LeBron has placed himself in a position of leading the professional athlete chorus on issues of “social justice” — which is fine by me so long as people who adopt that mantle for themselves are not afforded deference by the media and fans when it comes time for them to be accountable for their hypocrisy (everyone, on all sides of every issue, has exposure to being faulted or hypocrisy), and going beyond the depth of their actual knowledge on issues they choose to publicly pontificate about.  That accountability provides a gauge to evaluate just how worthy are their opinions in terms of being taken seriously.

My interest in Zlatan has been more recent.  He’s the Charles Barkley of world soccer, but his performance on the field is infinitely more spectacular than the sometimes outrageous things he says – most of which are simply in praise of himself. His nickname — which he gave himself — is “The Lion.”

If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a name with which you are unfamiliar, he has been one of the most dominant scorers in international soccer over the past 12 years.  His family heritage is from the former Yugoslavia – his father is a Muslim Bosnia, and his mother is a Catholic Croat — but Zlatan was born and raised in Sweden. In soccer he is a towering 6’5″, and probably 200+ lbs.  His career has been marked by instances of ballet-like grace and coordination combined with “bull in the china shop” brute force.  In that way, he’s very similar to LeBron.

He has publicly spoken about what he believed to be the discrimination he suffered growing up as an obviously non-Scandanavian in a Scandanavian country.  So he is not unfamiliar with the territory that comes with being outspoken on matters of racial or ethnic discrimination, and being a member of a minority.

Zlatan suffered a serious knee injury when he was 35 years old while playing in his first season with Manchester United — his first time ever playing in the English Premier League, the top professional soccer league in the world.  At the time it was thought to likely be the end of his serious playing days in Europe, and Manchester United did not renew his contract when it expired at the end of his first season with them.  With no big club offering him a contract after recovering from the knee injury, he did what many aging European stars have done in the past decade — he signed with an MLS club in the United States.  Zlatan signed with the Galaxy to play before the bright lights of La La Land.

His arrival in the City of Angels was announced with a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times — paid for by Zlatan — which said:  “Dear Los Angeles — You’re Welcome.”

Here is how his first-ever game with the LA Galaxy ended:

Someone who is 6’5″ and 200 lbs should not be able to do this:

Zlatan arrived in Los Angeles in April 2018.

LeBron announced he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The King and The Lion shared the same town until Zlatan left after two years with the Galaxy at the end of the 2019 MLS season.

Last week Zlatan had this to say about his views of LeBron’s “social activism” as observed by Zlatan during his time in LA and since.

“(LeBron) is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic told UEFA for Discovery+ in Sweden. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I don’t do politics. If I would be a political politician, I would do politics.

“That is the big first mistake people do when they become famous and they become in a certain status. Stay out of it. Just do what you do best because it doesn’t look good.”

LeBron took a couple of days, but then he fired back as follows:

“I would never shut up about things that’s wrong,” James said when asked about Ibrahimovic’s comments.

“I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social injustice, racism, systematic voter suppression, things that go on in our community,” James said. “Because I was a part of my community at one point and seeing the things that was going on and I know what’s going on still because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that’s going through the same thing and they need a voice. And I’m their voice. I’m their voice and I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that may be going on not only in my community but around this country and around the world.

“There’s no way I will ever just stick to sports because I understand how this platform … how powerful my voice is.”

There is one problem with his first sentence — “I would never shut up about things that’s wrong — usually.”  Fixed it.

Freedom of speech is crucial to intellectual dialogue on issues that confront society, and everyone is entitled to have and voice their opinions.  But what LeBron said next played right into Zlatan’s criticism of him.

“I speak from a very educated mind,” James said. “I’m kind of the wrong guy to actually go at because I do my homework.”

You do not need a college degree to have an “educated mind.”  When you have a lifestyle and career that affords you time to commit yourself to educational pursuits on your own initiative, irrespective of the subject matter, it is simple to develop an “educated mind.”

But LeBron is 36 years old.  Here is an embarrassing video from last summer that touches on the issue of his self-proclaimed “educated mind”.

Draw your own conclusions.  Mine is that he’s never read the book — the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  It’s in his hands as a prop knowing that he’ll likely face questions about the ongoing protests during the summer involving groups like Antifa and BLM.  Yet he calls himself an “educated mind” while seemingly never having read one of the seminal works on the issue of “black self-empowerment”?

I credit him 100% with regard to the earnestness of his opinions and efforts on behalf of black communities in the United States with whom he identifies based on his experiences and observations in the world.

And it is great that he recognizes the power of his voice.  Too many professional athletes and entertainers — of all races and nationalities – do not understand their influence over the public that consumes their “talent,” and that makes idiotic things said by them even more harmful to the public discourse.

But the corollary of LeBron’s defense of his activism is the necessity that he accepts — and maybe even acknowledges — criticism of his decision to remain silent on other matters that affect him.  The hypocrisy of his silence is manifest when the entire world understands that speaking out might cost him money — so his silence is a matter of financial self-interest.

In October 2019 — pre-COVID — LeBron and other NBA players were on a preseason tour in China.  Protests by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong were in full force.  Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out a message supportive of the protesters in Hong Kong, who were battling in the streets police forces controlled by the Chinese Communist Party leadership.  Upon returning to the United States, LeBron said the following:

“I don’t want to get in a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey. But I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said before the Lakers’ preseason game against the Golden State Warriors on Monday at Staples Center. “So many people could have been harmed, not only physically or financially, but emotionally and spiritually. Just be careful what we tweet, what we say and what we do. We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative things that come with that too.”

This episode has been sanitized in the 18 months since it happened, and LeBron’s comments have been laundered in the press and by the NBA to suggest he was only speaking out of concern for the safety of the NBA players who were in China and could have been subjected to some form of reprisal that might have threatened their safety.


The NBA does huge business in China — and individual NBA players, led by LeBron — have hugely lucrative business deals in the form of promotional contracts with Chinese companies who sell products to Chinese consumers, as well as with US companies for whom Chinese consumers are a big target.

The fallout was exactly as LeBron feared — disregarding his later “clarifications” that he was only concerned with the timing and not the “substance” of Morey’s tweet.

China did not like the NBA’s reaction. CCTV, a Chinese state-run television station, declined to broadcast the Lakers-Nets games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Telecom company Tencent canceled Rockets coverage and all NBA preseason games. The Chinese government pressured the NBA to cancel an NBA Cares event with the Nets. Various Chinese companies have announced they will end partnerships with various NBA stars. Although the NBA still played a pair of preseason games, the league did not have any press conferences for Silver or either team.

The Hill reported:

Chinese retribution was quick as all 11 of the NBA’s official Chinese partners suspended ties, and appearances and endorsement deals were cancelled — just as the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets arrived in Shanghai for two exhibition games.

It may have all ultimately resulted in little more than “venting” by the CCP to remind the NBA and the stars who writes the checks and who cashes the checks.  The same story in The Hill reported that China produces nearly 10% of all NBA revenue, and with deals then in place, that number could have climbed as high as 20% in less than a decade.

LeBron has a lifetime contract with Nike estimated to be worth $1 billion.  Nike has 110 factories and 145,000 employees in China who produce Nike footwear and apparel.  It is estimated by one human rights organization that a sizeable portion of China’s apparel production is done by 1 million ethnic Ughyurs Muslims and other religious minorities groups in “re-education” and “vocational training” camps in the Xinjiang province of Western China, home to most of the ethnic Ughyur population.

So far as I can find, LeBron has yet to make any public comment on China or the Uyghur situation which has now been declared by the United States and other western allies as a “genocide” by the Chinses government against an ethnic minority population.

Only one of two things can be true — either LeBron is not an “educated mind” on this subject and is therefore opting to not speak out with his “powerful voice” in deference to his ignorance; or he’s simply hypocritical for remaining silent due to the impact such “social activism” — which he champions in general — might have on his personal finances.

If the former, let me recommend to him the new article on the subject published two days ago by The New Yorker.

Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State:  Survivors of China’s Campaign of Persecution Reveal the Scope of the Devastation.

What say you, King James?

More on the New Yorker article in a future story.

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