In response to a Cleveland grand jury decision to not indict two white police officers in the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice, some on social media have adopted the hashtag #NoJusticeNoLeBron. The hashtag represents a twitter campaign designed to encourage Cleveland Cavalier’s basketball megastar LeBron James to boycott NBA games in an attempt to pressure the Department of Justice “imprison the murderers of Tamir Rice”
Many see this as an action similar to the remarkably successful boycott undertaken by the University of Missouri football team — which resulted in the resignation of the university system President. In reality, the circumstances are vastly different — a boycott runs the risk of doing more harm than good and is ultimately unfair to LeBron James.
Most important, LeBron James holds no real leverage over anyone in power in the city of Cleveland. His refusal to play would be largely symbolic, and while symbolism can be powerful, it would be silly to expect any policy/political action to come out of it. This is obviously different than at the University of Missouri, where the football team is a public face for the university and significant revenue stream. On top of that, wealthy alumni and school boosters — people who hold a lot of sway with the school — donate large sums of money to see their alma mater win footballs games, not to boycott.
What’s the lever in Cleveland? LeBron refuses to play and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, pressures the Mayor to do more? LeBron refuses to play and the DOJ just feels pressured to step in more forcefully? There is no lever. LeBron refusing to play — while laudable from a moral standpoint — generates no real leverage and instead runs the risk of him using up social/political capital which could be used much more strategically in other ways and at other times.
As a side note, if LeBron wanted to boycott and, say, pressure team owner Dan Gilbert into boosting wages and benefits for all arena workers or ensuring that a number of seats at all home games were reserved for low-income fans he could probably make headway. Within the Cavaliers franchise, LeBron holds sway and his refusing to play means something tangible.
Beyond all of this though, such a demand from activists is troubling. Black athletes — especially collegiate athletes — are already seen as property of their predominantly white owners and white institutions. “Shut up and play” is a common demand hurled from fans in the comment section, coaches on the sidelines, and owners high above. The #NoJusticeNoLeBRon demand from activists feels eerily similar in that we’re asking an athlete to simply ‘shutup and protest’ — with little attention to what he thinks or how he feels. Yes, the cause is noble and the moment urgent but we must do better.