In a time marked by kneeling protests and sporting outings across the league, which gained new traction in 2020, it is easy to place too much confidence in the ability of professional athletes to make social change.
True empowerment will only come when more players cross the long-standing gap between management and labor and enter the ranks of team ownership, where the real influence lies. That’s why LeBron James ’latest move, largely overlooked amid the swirling excitement of the NCAA tournaments, is so interesting from outside the court.
James, the Los Angeles Lakers star, announced his small but significant stake in the Fenway Sports Group last week. As you might have guessed from the name of the conglomerate, it makes him a co-owner in the Boston Red Sox and gives him appetizer in the inner sanctuary of baseball. The investment also contributes to James’ shares in Liverpool in the Premier League and his foothold with NASCAR’s Roush Fenway Racing team, which he bought in 2011.
It’s a preview of the future. Today’s athletes are beginning to realize that true strength lies not only in ground-level activism and the pursuit of championships, but also in a seat in the boardrooms of the team. This allows them to swing leagues that remain half-hearted about transformation. Would the NFL have made Colin Kaepernick black ball if a significant number of former black players were at the owners’ table? Unlikely.
Involvement of athletes in team ownership is not entirely a new phenomenon. Mario Lemieux bought the Pittsburgh Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999. Eleven years later, Michael Jordan became the first former NBA player to control a majority stake in one of the league’s teams when he bought the Charlotte Bobcats. (One of his first big steps was to rename the Hornets team.) Those actions enabled Lemieux and Jordan to reap financial returns that their labor alone could not deliver.
But James’ growing involvement in the corridors of power shows that today’s sports stars – more outspoken than Jordan and Lemieux, more likely to push against entrenched prosperity – are poised to use ownership as a way to gain more than personal gain. to strive.
With a boost from James, Renee Montgomery has announced at the age of 32 that she will become the first WNBA player to own a part of one of the league’s teams, the Atlanta Dream, after playing against a co-owner Kelly Loeffler, the fiery Republican senator who angered the basketball world when she denounced the Black Lives Matter movement. The outspoken tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have signed up as team owners in the National Women’s Soccer League, as well as a number of retired women’s soccer stars, in the wake of the American women’s soccer team’s fight for pay.
Expect more to come, with the athletes of this generation well aware of the direct power of team owners. By buying into the Fenway group, James offers the chance to learn the ropes as he gets closer to one of his most cherished goals. I’m not talking about Jordan’s six NBA titles being equal to or even surpassing. I’m talking about taking a majority stake in an NBA team. For now, James has to wait. League rules prohibit active players from joining ownership.
When the time comes, he will be ready. Now 36, he has long been a business magnate, backed by a group of high-gloss well-meaning advisers. If he needs wealthy investors to form a partnership and ride together, he has more than a few options to choose from quickly. Not that he would need much help. James is said to be a billionaire, or almost so.
Of all the sports stars of today, James has the heaviest influence. He is the most skilled at standing up and talking – both inside the council chamber and at street level through his social activism.
Therefore, he offered advice and connections to help Montgomery’s successful attempt to acquire part of the Dream. Montgomery, a two-time WNBA champion, put off last year’s truncated season to work as a grassroots activist. After the players elected Loeffler from her senate set, Loeffler lost a run-off election in January, which allowed James to bend.
“Stick to sports,” James said in a Twitter post on Loeffler following the sale to a group that included Montgomery. The barber turned the tables on what James and others had been told for years after talking about political matters.
The two basketball stars know that joining ownership offers them a new and important way to make their voice heard.
It’s one thing to kneel during the national anthem, attend marches or even lead teams on hikes and work stoppages. Such movements are the key. They lighten, attract attention and give passion. But in sports it is not enough either.
The limits faced by the athletes became clear during the protest movement that permeated last summer. Team owners in the great North American men’s sport spoke a good match and contributed millions of dollars to issues supported by players. But many of the same owners generously donated to President Donald J. Trump, who stood in direct opposition to everything the players insisted on. Such a double trade showed that the players might have had a megaphone, but money remains the language that is the biggest victim.
True transformation is unlikely to take place unless enlightened athletes continue to cross the chasm, enter the ranks of ownership and have their say on everything from the appointment of head coaches to sports efforts to bring more accountability to the police. It will take time to be in place enough to make a consistent difference. Fortunately, owner-activists like LeBron James and Renee Montgomery are creating a roadmap.