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LeBron James’ latest honor signifies culture change in sports

Vincent Frank
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Associated Press announced on Thursday that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James has won its coveted Male Athlete of the Year award for 2018. It’s the third time King James has walked away with this honor.

It comes after James became somewhat of a divisive figure within the larger confines of American society. It also comes after the three-time NBA champion opened a school in his hometown of Akron and led his then-Cavaliers to a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

For James, the honor represents just how much he has meant to those within American communities.

“I would describe it as a success because I was able to inspire so many people throughout the year,” James told the AP. “I got to go back to China, to Paris, to Berlin, I opened up a school. And all these kids I was able to see, all over the world and in my hometown, I was able to inspire, to make them think they can be so much more than what they think they’re capable of being. That was my outlook for 2018.”

James had previously mentioned that opening the I Promise school was the single greatest accomplishment of his life. He understood full well how those less fortunate in his hometown have struggled with the upward mobility that has defined the lives of those in his industry. He wanted to give a little back. And he did just that in a big way.

Outside of his community activism, James has thrown his hat into the American political scene. When a conservative pundit told James and others around the NBA to “shut up and dribble,” he did the exact opposite of that. He has not been afraid to opine on the most controversial topics of the day and has gone tit-for-tat with President Donald Trump.

In fact, James noted prior to his then-Cavaliers losing to Golden State in the 2018 NBA Finals that neither team would celebrate with Mr. Trump at the White House. Once the Warriors came out on top, that ultimately came to fruition.

All the while, James continues to be steadfast in his support for those who protest perceived racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. Just ask free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“I like to talk about generations. There will never be another Michael Jordan because he was the first to be a global superstar, the first to take the NBA to another level,” one of James’ best friends, Dwyane Wade said. “There will never be another LeBron James, and a lot of it is from what he’s done away from the game. Him understanding his voice has been so refreshing and so important to the culture and his friends.”

James earning this honor in 2018 is a representation of just how much the sports landscape has changed in recent years. He didn’t earn the NBA title this past June. This wasn’t simply about on-court accomplishments. If it were, Kevin Durant would be the one to have won the award.

Previous winners were primarily honored due to the success on the field and/or court. Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve earned the award in 2017 after leading his team to the World Series title.

Back in 2015, one year before James won it for a second time, rival Stephen Curry earned the award. He did so after leading the Warriors to an NBA title. Unlike James, Curry has not necessarily been outspoken about the most-divisive events of the day.

While we know where Curry stands, he has not taken the same approach as the player his Warriors met up with in the Finals the past four years.

It’s all about the lens upon which you look at this. To some, athletes have a right to involve themselves in the issues of the day. To others, sports itself acts as an outlet from the times we’re living in. Real life. The divisions that define this nation.

There’s no clear-cut right or wrong opinion. Just as James building the school in Akron has to be seen as a tremendous act of altruism, his alienating (to some) comments act as a precursor to further divisions.

But James has the podium. He has the star power. And he’s going to use it for what he deems to be good. Earning the AP Male Athlete of the Year honor will only embolden him moving forward. And it has changed the narrative around the sports world.