Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, has criticized Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA star LeBron James for not making a public show of support for her son who was fatally shot after reaching for his pellet gun, which police believed to be real.
Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir in November 2014 less than two seconds after arriving at the scene. But on Dec. 28 a grand jury declined to indict Loehmann or his partner Frank Garmback, in what Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said described as "a perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications ... that did not indicate criminal conduct by police."
The decision elicited further frustration and protests from groups including Black Lives Matter and the Rice family.
And Samaria is disappointed with a number of people for their role in Tamir’s case, but the basketball star seems to be at the top of her list – reigniting a debate about the role of professional athletes in the racial justice movement.
“I think it’s quite sad that LeBron hasn’t spoken out about my son,” Rice said in an interview with NewsOne Tuesday.
Activist Tariq Toure has promoted the Twitter hashtag #NoJusticeNoLeBron calling for James, because of his position of influence in the community, to sit out on NBA games in protest of the grand jury’s decision.
Rice said she isn’t calling for such extreme measures, but she would like a milder show of support.
“I’m not asking him to sit out a game,” Rice told NewsOne. “I know his kids got to eat too, but you can at least put on a shirt or something. Some of the other athletes, some of them have said something, some of them haven’t. I think they should just make a statement. I’m not asking nobody to quit their job or anything, but make a statement for us black people out here.”
If she was basing her expectations on James's recent past history, it's not too surprising that Ms. Rice was hoping for a response from him.
In March 2012, the NBA star posted a photo of the entire Miami Heat team wearing hooded sweatshirts similar to the one worn by 17-year-old Trayvon Martin when he was shot, with the hashtag #wearetrayvonmartin. And while warming up with his Cleveland Cavalier teammates for a Dec. 8, 2014 game against the Brooklyn Nets, James chose to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt instead of his jersey to show solidarity with Eric Gardner, another African-American man who was killed by police. Unlike Martin or Gardner, Tamir was a Cleveland native – like James.
President Barack Obama has praised James for frequently speaking out on social issues.
“We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves,” Mr. Obama told People Magazine in December 2014. “LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention.”
Yet James says Tamir’s case is different because he doesn’t know enough about it.
“For me, I’ve always been a guy who’s took pride in knowledge of every situation that I’ve ever spoke on,” James told ESPN after the Cavaliers beat the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 29. “And to be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment….”
James’ influential, yet sometimes controversial, response to social issues highlights a common paradox faced by many famous US athletes.
And there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus. Some say it’s not the job of professional athletes to comment on social controversies because they signed up to play a sport, not steer public opinion. NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley is famously quoted as saying: "I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court."
While others say that professional athletes signed up to be famous, and in that way they agree to all subsequent expectations of a role model. As Leigh Steinberg writes for Forbes, if professional athletes want to benefit from “huge sums for playing or endorsements or have any of the fame or exalted lifestyle that ensues,” then they need to play ball with a number of responsibilities.
Obama seems to agree with the latter school of thought.
“We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” Obama told People. “I’d like to see more athletes do that. Not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”