All this was hailed as a great call to arms and a validation of the Americans who had walked out of their homes to local protests and exercised their First Amendment rights. It also created a stir in the advertising world, where I was doing some work at the time. Terms like “platform,” “conversation” and “systemic racism” began getting bandied about in creative meetings. Big brands, sensing some change in the air, at least in the hearts of their affluent, coastal customer base, began sketching out ideas on how to maximize a sponsored athlete’s “platform” for social justice-y profit.
This came to a head in the N.B.A. bubble in Orlando, Fla., when the league and its sponsors plunged headfirst into the George Floyd protests with solemn displays of players kneeling, all manner of Nike-sponsored Black Lives Matter messaging printed on their players’ backs, projected all over the court and crammed into every corner of your television screen.
It’s nice, perhaps even somewhat brave, that the N.B.A. decided to “take a stand” (another phrase from creative meetings), but as happens whenever any famous people decide to do anything vaguely political, there was an undue amount of attention placed on which N.B.A. players were kneeling and which players were wearing what social justice slogans on their backs. Protest coverage became celebrity coverage. That, in turn, fed into an odd, increasingly prevalent form of politically driven fandom, wherein the opinions of the celebrities you support also reflect on you.
The bubble did generate some stirring, important and courageous displays of dissent, most notably the decision of the Milwaukee Bucks to effectively go on strike after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. But once the games started up again after a brief stoppage, the messaging around police violence and racism felt workshopped, sanded-down 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 beyond the sloganeering and the civil rights montages, there wasn’t much the platform actually said or did. All this almost felt like an apology for the fact that during the most significant civil rights moment of these young players’ lives, the league was forcing its players to live in a bubble. The actual message of last summer could be found in the streets of America, and it needed no amplification from N.B.A. players at Disney World.
I am not questioning the sincerity of these athletes or even discounting the steps they took to make sure that some message — however vague — of justice was delivered. But it should be noted that during this year’s playoffs, nearly all of the social justice messaging was mostly gone. LeBron James seemed perfectly content to use his platform to promote his film “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and when asked about the vaccine, he said that he had taken it but that it was not his job to promote it. “We’re not talking about something that’s political, or racism, or police brutality,” James said. “We’re talking about people’s bodies and well-being.” The platform, in other words, only extends to issues that LeBron James cares about, which apparently does not include getting people vaccinated.
James is wrong, of course: The pandemic is political, as are issues of public health and people’s bodies. But he also shouldn’t have to become a spokesperson for every progressive idea, even one as vital and as seemingly obvious as vaccines. We can be frustrated at James or even write off his political bona fides. We can even decide to stop rooting for him because of his seeming nonchalance about vaccine messaging. But we should also acknowledge that it ultimately doesn’t really matter what he, or the N.B.A. for that matter, believes. Who cares!
Wait, but does anyone actually care?
The question of whether we should care about what a celebrity thinks about vaccines — we obviously shouldn’t — is of course different from whether we do, which is what people are talking about when they claim that athletes have a responsibility to the public. If every athlete had some significant population of people who hang on their every word, this would all be a bit more understandable.