Sometimes getting older sucks, like really bad. The older we get, we learn more but at the same time the older we get, the way we are forced to view some of those who we respected and maybe idolized changes. This is especially true when it comes to the world of sports or the arts. We all have those people whose work or ability we’ve loved. We all have those athletes and artists that we truly call ourselves a fan of.
And sadly the older we get, some of those who we idolize, whose jerseys we wore, whose music we bought or whose posters hung on our walls, show a true side of themselves that puts all of those past feelings to waste. In the past few years, it feels that we have had more of those moments and in a few cases when they happen, they are such a disappointment that it just feels like a blow to the morale. I had that experience late this week, when one of my favourite footballers of all time said things that just ruined my fandom of him forever. With a short clip of less than a minute, years of cheering this guy on went poof. That player? Well it was Swedish international footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović, and these were the offending words:
The whole idea of “shut up and dribble” is one that has deeply offended my basic political sensibilities for a very simple reason; in a democratic society, the ability to speak up is important. It doesn’t matter about your profession, your age, your gender or even your eloquence. What matters is being involved and sharing your view. So this idea that professional athletes should just “shut up” because they are athletes has always bothered me. Athletes have just as much right to speak up about conditions in their communities as anyone else and have just as much ability to take part in the political discourse of a community as anyone else.
Many pro athletes like LeBron James, who Ibrahimović calls out, may have greater privilege in money and resources, but these people are still a part of their communities. They still have family and friends. And they still face the systematic injustices that others do. There are too many examples of athletes being abused by the authorities for simply being the people they are. I think of NBA players like Thabo Sefolosha and Sterling Brown, both of whom were assaulted and worse by the police, and for them, being highly paid athletes didn’t save them from the same treatment that other African Americans have faced in their country. In Sefolosha’s case, the assault by officers of the New York Police Department was so vicious that it caused a nearly career-ending injury, and I would argue that after that police-induced injury he was never the same player again. How many millions of dollars did that assault cost him? And in the case of Sterling Brown, as a headline on a good piece on his case put it, he’s “lucky he wasn’t killed by Milwaukee police”.
And yet Ibrahimović still said what he said, as if somehow athletes are protected from the outside world and that they bear no greater responsibilities. I’m not shocked that Zlatan said something that was selfish and self-centred because, well, that’s what he’s known for. The dude refers to himself more in the third person than Michael Jordan ever did and as much as I liked him as a footballer, Ibrahimović has never been the “best in the World” player that he’s described himself as. He’s very, very good, but not the best, sorry. The point is this dude is amazingly disconnected and truly living in his own world. He is coming from a place of extreme privilege that most of us could only dream about, and that includes most athletes. And that’s what bothers me the most. It’s one thing for him to be an ass or full of himself, that’s par for the course. But his inability to recognize his own privilege and then impose that on others, assuming everyone else is like him, is what bothers me. Dude had the right to share his view, but in doing so he clearly told on himself, showing himself to be the one who really hasn’t thought anything through or knew what he was talking about. LeBron James on the other hand, this response from him to Zlatan’s comments proves just how wrong he was:
LeBron James may be LeBron James, but he still comes from a community that struggles and he’s trying to do what he can to help make it better. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, trying to improve access to voting, creating business opportunities for his community and helping to give youth access to higher education. If the person who did that was a CEO or the owner of a chain of McDonalds, we’d hold them on high as a good example of our community. We would ask them to speak up and be a part of our political discourse. Yet if that person is an athlete they should shut up? Sorry, that’s just crap, plain and simple. That right there is all the more reason why they should speak up. They should speak up because it’s not all about themselves, but about the greater community. They should speak up, and this post from former NBA player Jeremy Lin from the other day is a great example why:
Whatever our background, we all have experiences that maybe the majority in society don’t understand. When you’re a part of the minority, the majority may not see your struggles or know what your community is experiencing or feeling. All across North America, we’ve seen Asian communities faced increased incidents of racist attacks because of COVID-19, incidents that seem to be getting worse, not better as time goes on. Those incidents are happening everywhere, including on the basketball court to Lin. In Zlatan’s view, Lin should just “shut up and dribble”, as if somehow that racism he faces doesn’t actually happen to him. He’s asking people like Lin, James and other athletes to “shut up” because of how uncomfortable it makes him feel, someone whose never faced the kind of discomfort of racial slurs or discrimination at all.
What Zlatan doesn’t get is that life is political by its very nature and to be engaged in it should be as natural as breathing. He also clearly doesn’t get that the privilege and monetary rewards that come with being a professional athlete doesn’t remove them from facing the same racism and prejudice that others in their community faces. And any student of history would clearly know that racist people and systems don’t spare people because of their wealth. That money doesn’t bring respect for those athletes, sparing them the pains and such that others face. He clearly doesn’t get any of that and if for that reason for whatever, Zlatan may want to stay quiet from here on out. But he is clearly in no position to tell others in his profession how to express or not express themselves politically. Most athletes get that having earned such a professional life, they have an inherent responsibility to give back to their communities as best as they can, and that’s not limited to make donations to the local Boys & Girls club. That can easily include speaking up for them because sometimes the greatest investment an athlete can make in their community is speaking the truth aloud. And for that reason, I’ll spend more time cheering on folks like LeBron James and no more pulling for Zlatan. Not all of our heroes are who they appear to be, and as disappointed I was to learn that this week, I’m glad I know it now.