For those who have insisted that organized sports and politics have no intersection points, the claim has rested on a spurious, almost uneducated conception of politics as the domain of those who make themselves available to be voted for.
Recently, the Swedish soccer star and former LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a dig at athletes who make it a point to voice their opinions on political matters, singling out Los Angeles Lakers’ Lebron James for criticism.
“[LeBron] is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like it when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time. Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football,” the 39-year-old soccer star had said.
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To this, James responded after a Lakers game. He defended his stances as well as his understanding of politics, which Ibrahimovic seems to understand as an occupation of politicians. James made the point that politics is not an aspect of our lived experience that gets to be detached from anything else. All of our experiences are happening in a political space.
The NBA champion told the press: “I preach about my people and I preach about equality. Social injustice, racism, systematic voter suppression, things that go on in our community. There is no way I will ever just stick to sports because I know with this platform, how powerful my voice is.”
It is not the first time James or any other Black American athlete has had to defend their political stances against those who think that sports happens outside any understanding of politics. Colin Kaepernick in the last few years comes to mind and he will not be the last. But what if those who attack politically-conscious athletes are only attacking out of bad faith and not necessarily ignorance?
And if they attacked out of ignorance and are then served a response that clarifies matters, are they not acting out of bad faith doubling down? Ibrahimovic, who has created a stern and stubborn reputation on and off the soccer pitch, certainly did not see the lessons James and others gave in their responses to him.
Even after James had brought up Ibrahimovic’s own lamentations about how his Swedish identity is constantly under question due to his Muslim Bosnian roots, the soccer player would not be taught. He subsequently resorted to a bizarre bifurcation of racism and politics.
“Racism and politics are two different things. We athletes unite the world, politics divides the world. Everyone is welcome, it has nothing to do with where you are from, we do what we do to unite,” Ibrahimovic doubled down. It seems inconceivable to believe that Ibrahimovic does not comprehend that “where you are from” is a matter of political identity.
Ibrahimovic has enjoyed and endured a 21-year soccer career that and he is a man who has been called upon many times by global organizations as well as his country to act as a goodwill ambassador, among which included ending child hunger. It is baffling that a man who has had many conversations to this extent with diplomats and politicians does not understand social justice’s place in the realm of politics. Only two conclusions can be drawn from this confusion – it’s either Ibrahimovic is acting out of bad faith or he has learned nothing from all of his work over these years with UNICEF and others.
When Laura Ingraham of FOX News came for James a few years ago and told him to “shut and dribble”, at least, it was clear she was only bitter that the most famous active basketball player in the world did not support the politician she adored. She had no qualms when under athletes voiced their support for Trump.
But it is James who has to advice himself and stop responding to these attacks going forward. They will not die down and no amount well-intentioned responses would help. Bad faith and and determined ignorance can be inexhaustible spirits.