It was all hailed as a grand call to arms and validation from Americans who had come out of their homes for local protests and exercised their First Amendment rights. It also caused a sensation in the advertising world, where I was working at the time. Terms like “platform”, “conversation” and “systemic racism” began to be used in creative meetings. The big brands, sensing some change in the air, at least in the hearts of their affluent, coastal clientele, began sketching out ideas on how to maximize a sponsored athlete’s “platform” for the benefit of. social justice.
It came to a head in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, when the league and its sponsors plunged head-first into the George Floyd protests with solemn displays of kneeling players, all manner of Black Lives Matter sponsored by Nike messages printed on the backs of their players, projected all over the pitch and crammed into every corner of your TV screen.
It’s good, maybe even a little brave, that the NBA has decided to “take a stand” (another phrase taken from creative meetings), but as it happens every time a famous person decides to do something vaguely political, excessive attention was paid to which NBA players were on their knees and which players wore what social justice slogans on the back. Coverage of protests has become celebrity coverage. This, in turn, has fueled a strange and increasingly widespread form of political fandom, in which the opinions of the celebrities you support are reflected in you as well.
The bubble generated moving, significant and courageous dissent demonstrations, including the Milwaukee Bucks decision to go on strike after Jacob Blake’s police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But once the games resumed after a brief hiatus, the message around police violence and racism felt honed, sanded, and ultimately gestural. The point seemed more to be that these very famous people and this very public league were using their platforms, but once you got past the civic rights slogans and montages, the platform didn’t really say or do much. It almost sounded like an apology for the fact that during the most important civil rights moment in the lives of these young players, the league was forcing its players to live in a bubble. The real Last summer’s message could be found on the streets of America, and it didn’t need to be amplified by NBA players at Disney World.
I do not question the sincerity of these athletes or even neglect the steps they have taken to ensure that a message – however vague – of justice is delivered. But it’s worth noting that during this year’s playoffs almost all social justice messages were mostly gone. LeBron James seemed perfectly happy to use his platform to promote his film “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, and when asked about the vaccine, he said he took it but that ‘it was not his job to promote it. “We’re not talking about anything political, racism, or police brutality,” James said. “We are talking about the body and the well-being of people. The platform, in other words, only expands on issues that LeBron James cares about, which apparently doesn’t include vaccinating people.
James is wrong, of course: the pandemic is political, as are issues of public health and people’s bodies. But neither should he have to become the spokesperson for every progressive idea, even as vital and seemingly as obvious as vaccines. We can be frustrated with James or even write off his political good faith. We may even decide to stop supporting him because of his apparent nonchalance about vaccine messages. But we also have to recognize that at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what he, or the NBA, for that matter. We do not care!
Wait, but does anyone really care?
Whether we should care what a celebrity thinks about vaccines – obviously we shouldn’t – is of course different from whether we to do, this is what people are talking about when they claim that athletes have a responsibility to the public. If every athlete had a sizable population of people clinging to their every word, it would all be a little more understandable.