why does lebron james love america so much?

words: nathaniel friedman

Earlier this week, LeBron James told reporters assembled for his team’s media day that, while he supported Colin Kaepernick, he would stand during the national anthem. This wasn’t a side comment or snap decision. Kaepernick has launched a full-on movement within the world of sports; with the NBA season on the horizon, there’s been plenty of speculation as to how its players would respond—especially LeBron, who has a history of both activism and what some perceive as brand-conscious evasion.

The question of what LeBron James would kneel has loomed large this offseason. Not only is LeBron basketball's biggest name, he’s also been a standard bearer when it comes to commenting on social issues. In the past, he’s worn an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during warmups and was part of a group of NBA players who opened the ESPYs with a bold statement on police brutality and gun violence. James’s plans would reflect on both him as an individual and the league as a whole; they would set expectations while making a statement about where these athletes fit into the ecosystem of sports. When it comes to the NBA, LeBron sets the tone for the conversation.

For some, then, LeBron's announcement was a huge disappointment, one only bolstered by an “all lives matter” digression (a rhetorical pitfall that amounts to a PR disaster). He was accused of shirking the responsibility that he’d invoked at the ESPYs and wanting to have it both ways, of worrying too much about his image and betraying Kaepernick and other athletes who helped keep important issues front and center. That LeBron also explained in great detail his visceral response to the death of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott mattered very little. LeBron James has apparently declined the opportunity to crystallize the issue every time he takes the court.

But to understand LeBron’s decision, it’s useful to look at one key quote: “Me standing for the national anthem is something I will do. That’s who I am. That’s what I believe in.” While this sentiment was largely glossed over, it’s absolutely instructive in trying to make sense of James’s decision. Simply put, LeBron James still believes in America.


There would be a world of difference between kneeling during the anthem in the NFL and the NBA. The culture around the NFL is far more conservative, as evidenced by the backlash against Kaepernick on the part of everyone from fans—44% of the population claims to be on the verge of abandoning the sport—to former coaches like Mike Ditka. But that’s exactly why this incarnation of athlete activism has such power. Kaepernick is forcing them to think about police brutality and systemic racism, even if they would rather ignore these problems or dismiss them altogether.

The NBA, by contrast, can be a remarkably progressive place. Players like LeBron James have a voice and are praised for using it—and practically expected to do so, as when James was taken to task for declining to comment on the Tamir Rice shooting. While the people able to afford tickets at the arena may not reflect it, the sport’s audience is more or less the Democratic coalition of the two coasts, major cities, and minorities. And under Adam Silver, the league itself has taken action, withdrawing the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte over the state’s controversial HB2, and hitting guard Rajon Rondo with heavy fines for using a homophobic slur against referee Bill Kennedy. In this context, participating in these athlete protests could come across as preaching the choir.

But there’s also the possibility that NBA players simply see America in a different way than their NFL peers. In the grand scheme of things, anyone who enjoys this level of success as a professional athlete has “made it,” the NFL is still a perilous workplace compared to the NBA. Players’ contracts are not guaranteed; they remain largely anonymous and unrecognizable underneath helmets and pads, limiting their ability to capitalize on their celebrity; with the exception of star players, their salaries are dwarfed by those of their NBA peers; their bodies are chewed up and spit out by the sport often with long-term consequences; the average career lasts only five years; and they play against a backdrop of often retrograde values and militarized jingoism.

The NBA offers a far rosier proposition: Guaranteed contracts, skyrocketing salaries, recognition that leads to lucrative endorsements, longevity, and the leverage to pursue outside business interests or a post-retirement career in the media. Put simply, the American Dream of opportunity and self-determination is working out far better for them.

This perspective isn’t strictly explained by self-interest. It’s possible to both acknowledge America as imperfect while believing that it retains some inherent good. This has been Barack Obama’s mantra since his 2004 Democratic Convention speech and the close ties between the President and the sport are no accident. If sports are manifestations of society and culture, they’re also metaphors for it. The NBA doesn’t just cater to certain demographics. It models the half-full version of this country that, ideally, lies on the other side—or exists as a necessary complement to—the urgency of Kaepernick’s protest.

NFL players face the challenge of forcing awareness and overcoming opposition. At the ESPYs, LeBron and friends acknowledged the elephant in the room and then immediately pivoted to the question of what comes next. There’s both the optimism that no matter how dire things are now, change is possible, and a subtext that their own experience can be both exceptional and exemplary. There’s no contradiction or cop-out there. Just the faith that, even if the system is broken, it hasn’t completely failed. When James told us that the anthem still holds value for him, he’s not touting the jingoism that runs rampant in the NFL. He might as well be speaking a different language. LeBron's America—the NBA’s America—is one where things just might work out if appropriate action is taken.


Carmelo Anthony was the first NBA star to speak out against police brutality. He not only participated in the ESPYs but posted a lengthy, fierier, statement on Instagram and authored an op-ed for The Guardian. Anthony then proceeded to proudly lead Team USA to a gold medal in the Olympics. For him, there was no contradiction in making pointed statements about police brutality following Team USA practice.

When asked about a potential protest during the season, Melo’s answer was vague and open-ended: “Whatever we do, we want to do it as a collective group. I don’t know what that is yet. We’ll figure that out. But we want to do it all together. We want everybody to feel a part of it.” Yet what Anthony is saying is important: There’s no question in his mind that his team will do something but the message will be one of intention, not defiance. The statement is less important than the follow-through. Perhaps taking a cue from Anthony, who this summer held a town hall-style event in Los Angeles focused on community-police relations, the league and the Players Association have already begun working together to engender “meaningful action."

This level of institutional cooperation isn’t just encouraging. It suggests that, at least within certain spaces, James and Anthony might be onto something. They may not be going out on a limb or risking as much as Colin Kaepernick. But big picture, their role isn’t to provoke or furnish perspective. Kaepernick has leveraged the NFL’s mass visibility to force a conversation. His protest was highly sport-specific. The power and influence that the NBA’s biggest names (and, relatively speaking, the rank and file as well) wield puts them in a very different position: One where they can actually start to dig into the hard work of investigating ways to improve the situation.

It’s possible to dismiss LeBron James as tentative, overly optimistic, cynical, or simply deluded. But taken as a whole, his comments on media day points to a form of patriotism in which idealism and realism exist in constant, bittersweet tension. When James stands during the anthem, it’s not a full-throated endorsement of what America is. It’s a statement about what he believes America could be.