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Method vs. Message: How sports can start a movement

Eddie Pells, AP National Writer | 2/2/2018, 7:23 a.m.
Colin Kaepernick's first two "protests" drew scant attention. He sat on the bench, out of uniform, virtually unnoticed. His third ...
In this July 13, 2016, file photo, NBA basketball players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, from left, speak on stage at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. The four gave an anti-violence speech and expressed their support of the values behind the Black Lives Matter movement. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Colin Kaepernick's first two "protests" drew scant attention. He sat on the bench, out of uniform, virtually unnoticed. His third got some buzz after a reporter tweeted a picture of the 49ers bench that had nothing to do with the quarterback but caught him in the frame, sitting during the national anthem.

Meanwhile, the killing of a 12-year-old boy by police and the light it shined on the Black Lives Matter movement helped draw a reluctant LeBron James into the world of using sports as a vehicle for social change. But once he got there, James stayed disciplined both about the message he sends and the way he sends it.

Despite their vastly divergent methods, Kaepernick and James helped set a stake in the ground, declaring to athletes across all sports that their platforms could be — should be — used for more than fun and games in the 21st century.

Kaepernick's message — "organic" to some, "disorganized" to others — started a movement that has essentially linked the NFL with kneeling in a dramatic string of events that will play out for a final time this season, Sunday at the Super Bowl. James has also made an imprint thanks to the power of his own brand. Whose method worked better? The answer to that question figures to guide the direction of sports protests for the foreseeable future.

"Kaepernick didn't go into it knowing what was going to happen. He was doing what he thought was right but this was not something he expected," said professor Danielle Coombs of Kent State, who specializes in the politics of sports. "On the other hand, you have athletes, like LeBron James, who make sure they do it in a way that lets the message rise to the top."

Coombs and David Casillo co-authored a paper in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues centered on James, whose precise, calculated brand of activism pressed for change, but in a way that would not negatively affect the bottom line.

Two years before Kaepernick, and two decades after the seemingly apolitical Michael Jordan once reportedly said Republicans buy shoes, too, James found himself in the middle of a firestorm in the wake of the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

James said very little about the killing, which occurred only miles from his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He took heat for his reluctance. But over the ensuing years, he branched out slowly and cautiously, and sometimes with others at his side. He joined Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade at the 2016 ESPYs and gave a well-received speech calling for an end to gun violence.

The speech was a well-thought-out, well-organized message timed for maximum impact, as was Steph Curry's impassioned defense of the stance that Kaepernick and others had taken on issues ranging from sitting during the national anthem, to the importance of showing team unity to foregoing White House visits.

"If I'm going to use my platform, I don't want to just be noise," Curry wrote in a Veterans Day blog on The Players' Tribune website. "I want to talk about real issues that are affecting real people."