A TALE OF TWO LEGENDS
What Tom Brady Can Learn From LeBron James, the Sports Hero We Need Right Now
With the opening of his I Promise School for underprivileged kids, LeBron James has once again cemented his status as the friendly face of pro sports.
LeBron James. He’s wonderful and everyone loves him. He brought a title to Cleveland, single-handedly slaying the mighty 73-win Warriors and sending them home crying to their mothers. He loves calling out our horrible president in public. He’s a mentor and a supporter of his teammates and friends. He loves aquatic sports. This guy got JR Smith a ring, for Christ’s sake!
Sure, did he just sign with the most-widely-disliked franchise in the NBA? Yeah, okay, but he did it when he was starting to get old and when they didn’t really have the infrastructure to win titles or anything, and expressly for the purpose of transitioning out of a life making money playing basketball and into a life of producing movies, doing dunk-offs at his son’s high-level youth basketball games, teaching young Lakers how to make the franchise they play for kowtow to their demands, and going for early morning jogs on beaches and looking at suns set across the ocean. In an NBA era when titles have begun to mean entirely too much to these dudes, Bron has opted to, once again, reframe the conversation, rejecting the narrative of bleeding and dying for rings and just, like, accepting that life is for living.
But there’s nothing out there that is raking in the plaudits for LeBron like his foray into educational charity. Our man, his foundation and the Akron Public Schools system built, in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, from the ground up, a school, called the I Promise School, specifically designed for the service of low-income and at-risk students in Akron.
The school’s concept is a social-welfare enthusiast’s wet dream, top to bottom: it has a longer school day and a focus on accelerated learning to help students who are lagging behind catch up with their peers, a built-in food bank to serve families, support for students in dire economic straits, and will guarantee students free tuition at the University of Akron upon graduating. If that’s not enough for you, every student who attends the school will get a free bike so they can get out of their neighborhoods and explore other parts of town, like Bron did when he was an Akron youth living in dire straits.
In a time when education in America is being subjected to the penny-pinching thirst of Betsy DeVos-types who are seeking to gut public education and replace it with Amazon warehouse training schools where you learn everything with tablets while their kids attend private schools where rich kids are taught, in classes with five or so other kids, that they are the kings of Earth, meant to ride the world until it explodes under the weight of their hubris, LeBron is making a profound statement by personally investing in improving public education—not charter schools, not private schools, but public schools that service every kid with a comprehensive and specialized education to give them the opportunity to do whatever they want to pursue after they graduate.
Other athletes have made gestures toward helping kids get good educations (every athlete imaginable has a write-off charity that does something for kids). But LeBron is doing some shit that didn’t even occur to anyone else: he is opening a school for a specific, vulnerable population, whose mission is built around not cutting corners and doing everything it possibly can to help kids. He is paying to make Akron Public Schools a vanguard; to create a replicable success that cities all over America can mimic. It’s a profound statement of values.
The NBA’s best player is a tremendous ambassador for the game and for the sport at large. It’s hard to say he’s the best the league has ever had—Magic and Jordan and Bird made the modern NBA—but it’s also hard to imagine any of those dudes going as far as LeBron has in seeking to actually make the world a better place.
The league, whose last round of generational talents were a sociopath who played miserable hoops and now makes shitty documentaries about himself and a dude who hated talking and prefers no one have any fucking idea who he is, is in incredible hands with Bron and his descendants, socially-engaged star athletes who play thrilling ball and conduct themselves well off the court. It stands to reason that if dudes like this keep signing up to dominate on the court, the NBA will keep growing.
Not every sport is this lucky. Baseball is doing a fabulous job marketing its teams to local markets, but it’s having heaps of trouble marketing its best players—your Trouts, your Harpers—nationally. The culture of the game is somewhat to blame: players are trained to loathe showmanship, for some reason, and the statistical revolution that made the NBA a mad world of three-pointers and dunks has mostly turned baseball into a walks and dingers league, less watchable than the grimy small ball that dominated in eras past.
But no sport in the world is treading more water than the NFL, which appears to have given up marketing players entirely and is relying purely on the spite of its audience to gin up attention. Take the league’s most famous and successful player, Tom Brady—he of the locker room MAGA hat, the expensive haircuts and the pregnancy cut and run. No one outside of Boston likes this dude and yet here he is, encapsulating every possible value the NFL likes to see in itself. He’s a leader, a winner, he does it with whoever the squad gets for him, he sells deodorant or whatever the fuck.
Here’s some stuff about Brady, this sniveling shit: for years and years, he has been the face of Best Buddies International, a nonprofit dedicated to helping intellectually and developmentally disabled people. But in the last few years, he has, no joke, begun accepting millions of dollars in donations from this long-standing, extremely legit charity, into the coffers of his own charity, which focuses “almost entirely on causes tied to Brady’s personal interests, including his high school alma mater, his children’s private schools, and charities operated by his football friends.” The standard-bearer for the NFL is a dude who insists that the charity he does promo work for give its money over to his kids’ private school. Extremely cool dude.
And what about famous NFL players who actually do good work? Well, Colin Kaepernick, who gives liberally to educational and social justice concerns, is out of the league because he staged a silent protest against racial injustice in policing.
But what are you supposed to do? The NFL is a monstrous organization—a machine fueled by blood and brain cells, expensive-as-hell one-use stadiums, the unquenchable greed of its owners and the never-ending thirst for conformity and order that runs deep in the hearts of its audience. Someday, god help us, this craving will drive the NFL into its grave, and the league will be supplanted, as it already has in the broader culture and around the world, by the NBA, which is a capitalist enterprise, sure, but one that, at the very least, isn’t pulsing with the radiation of a kind of intangible pure evil. And on that day, LeBron will ride victorious astride its corpse, and lead us into a future where every child can have a decent education. Or something.