The importance of athletes giving back

LeBron James’ I Promise School speaks to the current era of athletic star power

The importance of athletes giving back

In late July, NBA superstar LeBron James made international headlines after opening his I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The public elementary school, created to assist at-risk youth, offers free tuition, college funding for all students who graduate, an extended school year to keep children engaged in their schoolwork, and a food pantry for parents, as well as many other resources for students and families — all free of cost.

LeBron’s initiative comes in the wake of Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham’s comment earlier this year that LeBron and fellow NBA superstar Kevin Durant should stay away from political commentary and social issues, and “shut up and dribble.”

Ingraham received widespread criticism over the remark, as sports fans, politicians, and media figures reaffirmed the widely held position that athletes have the right to speak up on issues they see as important and to use their wealth and stature to give back to communities in need. Since the incident, examples of social awareness and altruism in sports have gained much more attention.

LeBron’s peer, WNBA star Tina Charles, is one of these examples. For the third season in a row, New York Liberty’s centre has donated her entire salary to her own organization, which is aimed at combating sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), the number one cause of death in the United States. Charles’ efforts have made external defibrillators accessible for thousands more people, thus decreasing the chance of death due to SCA from 90 per cent to 10 per cent.

Canadian Olympic icon Clara Hughes, the only Olympian in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer games, has been working for years to help end the stigma around mental illness. As the national spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk, Hughes has assisted in bringing over $7 million to the cause of eliminating the stigma around mental health in Canadian communities.

Fellow Canadian and NHL winger Jordin Tootoo, the first person of Inuit background to play in the NHL, has created anti-bullying programs for Indigenous youth and communities through the Team Tootoo Fund. These programs also include raising awareness for suicide prevention and addiction in Indigenous communities. With Inuit suicide rates 11 times higher than the national average, the goal of the foundation is to provide Indigenous communities with proper mental health services, and to “get in front of kids about suicide prevention and let them know there are people who care.”

During the FIFA World Cup earlier this summer, 19-year-old French phenom Kylian Mbappé gained international attention after donating his entire national team earnings to Premiers de Cordée, a charity seeking to provide greater access to sports for children with disabilities.

Spanish professional soccer player Juan Mata also created the Common Goal initiative, which encourages players to donate a minimum of one per cent of their salary to charity. The initiative is in response to skyrocketing transfer fees in the soccer world, with the goal of introducing “social responsibility” to soccer by setting a realistic humanitarian goal that all players would be willing to participate in.

The goal is a minimum requirement that should be adopted by athletes in all sports, not just in soccer. Sports fans should not only celebrate social responsibility taken by athletes, but should encourage athletes to speak out on social issues and set an expectation for all professional athletes to make a commitment to humanitarianism.

Athletes serve as role models for entire cities and nations, and these tremendous stories of altruism could go far beyond sports by serving as inspirations for thousands of others to try and do something good for humanity.

LeBron James in Hollywood

What LeBron’s move to LA means for the rest of the NBA

LeBron James in Hollywood

Eight years ago, the basketball world watched LeBron James announce that he was taking his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The Decision, a 75-minute television special dedicated to LeBron’s free agency decision, was met with resentment by NBA fans across the world.

LeBron became the NBA’s biggest supervillain overnight. He was vilified by Ohioans and basketball fans alike, described as betraying his home state by forming a “superteam” in Miami to pursue easy championships.

Eight years later, LeBron is departing from the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time to join the Los Angeles Lakers. This time around, the move lacks the fireworks and theatrics that accompanied The Decision, with the official announcement coming via a subtle press release from his agency.

Despite the difference in rollout, the move still begs the question: what does this mean for LeBron’s legacy?

Now changing teams for the third time since being drafted to the Cavaliers, LeBron’s move to Los Angeles is much different than his first departure.

Since returning home, LeBron has brought Cleveland four Eastern Conference banners and a championship after defeating the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. This past season, he extended his NBA Finals streak to eight consecutive seasons, after dragging another lackluster Cavaliers squad past the Eastern Conference Finals.

His performance over the last four years has been unparalleled, which makes it difficult to be critical of LeBron for leaving. Unlike before his first departure, it is clear that LeBron has done everything in his power to bring basketball success to the city of Cleveland. Moreover, critics certainly cannot argue that he’s taking the easy way out by joining the Lakers.

LeBron’s move takes him to the Western Conference (West), a conference with arguably greater talent and better teams than the Eastern Conference (East). In the West, LeBron will have much more difficulty navigating his way to the finals with juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets standing in the way.

It seems clear that the safe move for LeBron’s legacy would have been to stay in the East, dominate the playoffs year after year, and extend his unprecedented Finals streak.

This would have kept LeBron fans’ favourite narrative alive: LeBron continues to drag bad teams to the Finals by virtue of his individual greatness, only to lose to the ‘unfair’ Warriors who have combined their forces to defeat him because they are unable to do so by themselves.

On top of this, LeBron is not joining a superteam like when he left for Miami, or as many of his peers have opted to do in the past few seasons.

LeBron joins a Lakers team with awkward pieces, from young and inexperienced players still developing into their full potential, to three ball-dominant guards lacking strong shooting abilities in Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson, and Rondo players that will hinder LeBron from operating in his preferred point-forward role on the floor. Making things even more challenging for LeBron is that the defending champion Warriors have signed Demarcus Cousins for the coming season.

Arguably the best center in the league, Cousins provides the Warriors with a perfect remedy for their Achilles’ heel: offensive rebounding. With this acquisition, it seems like the chances of any team defeating the Warriors, let alone this newly assembled Lakers squad, are virtually non-existent.

The move to the Lakers seriously threatens LeBron’s legacy. NBA fans are notoriously fickle, so it seems certain that if the Lakers fail to acquire new talent and give LeBron some quality teammates to work with, his career will not be defined by his early success, but rather by his failure to excel in the face of adversity.

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

After the Golden State Warriors won their second consecutive NBA title against the Cleveland Cavaliers — their third title in four years — many NBA fans are growing restless with the lack of parity in the league.

In the past two seasons, the Warriors have lost once in the NBA Finals, which is especially concerning given that the Finals are usually set up to be the most competitive matchup in the playoffs.

One of the main critiques of these ‘superteams’ is that they have offset the competitive balance the league once had, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that superteams offsetting the competition is a recent development. If you take a look at the history of the NBA, there has never been much parity.

The NBA was built on dynasties. In the ‘60s, you had the Boston Celtics winning nine times; in the ‘80s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five times and the Celtics three; in the ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls won six times; and from 2000–2015, you had the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat winning 12 of 15 championships.

There has never been any distinguishable movement in terms of who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. This is not a new problem for the league, and trying to eliminate superteams won’t solve it.

In an effort to deter player movement like the league is experiencing now, the NBA created a designated veteran contract — in other words, an incentive for players to re-sign with their team, and which allows them to sign a much larger contract.

So far, the top two teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, have each managed to sign a superstar — Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, respectively. They have decided to forego the designated veteran contract, along with the extra millions that would go along with it, and instead compete for the championship.

The largest competitive problem the league has right now is not superteams: it’s that the majority of NBA talent is stacked in the Western Conference. With LeBron James now moving out west to the Lakers, arguably, the top 10 players in the league are located in the same conference. The disparity in competition between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference is a serious problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has announced that he will look into a reformed playoff structure to ensure the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals. The proposed new structure would lead to having the top 16 teams overall make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they came from.

In other words, the exciting seven-game series that the Rockets and the Warriors had this year could have been for the NBA championship, instead of the lackluster four-game series with the Cavaliers.

It’s very clear that the top teams in the NBA are on a different level than the rest of the league. So where does that leave teams who are on the outside looking in, like the Toronto Raptors?

As it turns out, the Raptors are in a tough spot. To compete in this league, they’re going to have to make bold moves, and that can come from big free agent signings or blockbuster trades. With LeBron moving to the west, the door seems to have opened for the Raptors once more. Under the tutelage of their new head coach, Nick Nurse, the Raptors are looking to retool, which may put them among the top few teams in the east ready to compete for a spot in the finals.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors sent the league into a frenzy, with many coming to the conclusion that the NBA season is already over, and while that may be true, his signing itself isn’t simply the problem.

As fans, we tend to judge star players’ free agency decisions based off of what seem to be their reasons for signing. It’s either that they’ve signed for the money, in which case we criticize them for choosing money over championship rings, or that they’ve signed with a major contender, and we accuse them of taking the easy way out.

Fans can’t have it both ways. If players are judged solely on NBA championships, we can’t blame them for joining the top contenders.

The NBA is still about competition, and the Warriors are simply competing at a higher level than everyone else. After they lost the NBA Finals in 2015, the team replaced Harrison Barnes with Durant. They faced elimination twice this past postseason against the Rockets and have added Cousins, a perennial All-Star. The Warriors have refused to stay complacent, and other teams should follow suit.

Despite all the criticism the league is facing, ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, with fans tuning in hoping to see Goliath fall. The NBA has always been about dynasties, and true parity has never existed. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.